Published 10:08 am Friday, June 27, 2014
CAPRON—The environment was bigger than any he had experienced. The rules were more complicated. And the warm-up time was less than any before. His mother, in the stands watching, was worried about how he’d face these challenges.
He did so by pushing the start timer, going into the freestyle and swimming ahead at full force, touching the stop timer, and only then did he look up and see his coach holding up one finger. Jorden Jarratt, 18, could smile at that sight, and his mother, Tammy, could relax in her seat.
“It is pretty awesome,” he said about winning a gold medal at the Special Olympics State Games in Richmond.
Jorden has autism, a disorder that can be characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, repetitive behaviors and intellectual disability. But when he is in the water, none of that matters.
“It feels good,” he said. “I like to be in the water.”
For Jorden, there were always challenges growing up. When he was 3, his mom had tried to get him to play t-ball with children his age. But he did not understand the concept, and he’d often go home in tears after practice before they dropped it. After that, he and his mom would retreat into improving his academics. They would spend hours upon hours on homework each night to keep up, but without extracurricular activities, Jorden was missing out on making many friends.
Then they put him in the water at the Suffolk YMCA for a tryout, and things slowly started to change.
“We knew he could swim, so we decided to try out for that,” Tammy said. “After watching him, the coaches said that he could go racing — there’s no need to go to basic skills.”
He and his mom had been interested in trying the Area 29 Special Olympics before, but due to the school load, and keeping an eye on making sure he graduates this upcoming school year, he’d never had the opportunity.
“School was tough, but this year his load was lighter, so we saw the opportunity and he was ready for it,” Tammy said. “I knew that Jorden knew how to swim and that he enjoys being in the water.”
“It is fun,” Jorden said about swimming. “Exercising — the more you exercise, the more weight goes down. Muscles will be bigger.”
Not to say that it was easy when they first started practicing racing back in February of this year.
“It is hard work,” Jorden said. “They said, ‘It will get easier.’ It got easy with more.”
And so he practiced at the Suffolk YMCA en route to becoming a state champion and winning medals at many other regional meets. Before the state games, his biggest day was back in April at the Virginia Military Institute Special Olympics Games, where he won gold across the board in all three 25-meter categories he swims in: the freestyle, the breaststroke and the backstroke.
Jorden then went on to compete in the same events at the Collegiate School Aquatics Center in Richmond from June 6-8.
He won the gold medal in the freestyle, and silver in the other two events.
“I like collecting medals. I like collecting gold medals,” he said, emphasizing the word gold. “I felt happy.”
But of course, it’s not all about winning.
“Winning is not everything, it is about having fun,” said Jorden, adding that he has fun every time. Besides, “If we don’t win this time, we will win next time.”
A bigger detail in this to Tammy is that her son is now a part of something.
“He is not just a wallflower anymore,” she said. “To see him get out of the car and high-five with his teammates and then ask them how they have been doing since he saw them — it’s hard to say how that feels. It’s great to win, but more importantly he’s learning how to make friends.”
Jorden nodded that he likes having friends, and then proceeded to name everyone on his swim team.
“I’ve got some good friends — not bad friends but good friends,” he said. “They are nice.”
The Special Olympic athletes all support each other, as do all of the people involved, said Tammy.
“People cheer no matter what — the last swimmer will come in and the whole stadium will stand and clap,” she said. “The kids all support each other too. One race a girl who usually does well was obviously struggling, and when she finished, all of her teammates were there for her.”
It’s all about the team, and Tammy saw one occasion that really emphasized how important the team was to Jorden. At one event, Jorden was feeling bad, but he still went on and swam.
“If the coaches want me to swim, that’s fine. I can swim better,” he said. “Some players and coaches need me. I can’t let them down. I want to win. I want the area 29 team to win.”
Next year, they’ll probably move Jorden up to race in the 50-meter, and he’ll also be involved in volleyball. Along with bowling, he’ll have an event that runs with Special Olympics all year.
“Volleyball is a sport of games,” Jorden said. “You hit the ball over the net. It will be a score one if it hits the floor. I will have teammates. I’m excited.”
But it all goes back to swimming, and Tammy said he could have never learned to swim if not for the community, which she said was very supportive of her and Jorden. The late Kay Pope had let her know that she was going to have Carol Jarvis teach her grandchildren to swim, and that Jarvis could teach Jorden in a one-on-one setting.
“The thought was just to give him some life-saving skills in case of an emergency,” Tammy said. “Now it is so much more.
“Who knew something that she taught him 14 years ago would be so important now?”