The USMS club in the Chicago area blends adaptive and nonadaptive swimmers working together to achieve their goals
Kathleen Sandner was stumped.
Parents of two adaptive swimmers she was coaching for a Special Olympics program at a Y asked her what other opportunities there were for their sons to compete, but Sandner couldn’t find anything that fit. Her husband suggested she start her own team for them.
She had always wanted to coach a club for adaptive swimmers, but she thought that was something that would happen far in the future. She decided to do it, creating MoonFish Swim Club in 2019, a U.S. Masters Swimming program in the northern Chicago suburbs.
She decided upon the name after learning about moonfish, largely considered to be the first known warm-blooded fish on the planet. They can adapt to their surroundings because of the circulation of warm blood through their bodies, which allows them to live in the deep, chilly parts of the ocean. “I saw the word ‘adapt’ and was like, ‘That’s it. That’s us,’” Sandner says.
The team started with just four members, including adaptive swimmers Nate Freeman and Andy Massari. Eventually, more locals heard about the club and wanted to join. All swimmers are welcome, no matter their skill level, from triathletes looking to improve their swimming ability to casual lap swimmers. The club’s overall mission is to be an inclusive environment for adaptive and nonadaptive swimmers.
“As we’ve been contacted by more swimmers, I have a frank conversation with them and say we have adaptive swimmers, we share lanes, and this is how many yards we do in an hour workout,” Sandner says. “We ask them to be considerate. No one has ever said to me, ‘No, that’s not a good fit.’”
Just four years ago, Sandner becoming a swim coach didn’t seem likely.
She swam competitively from age 7 through high school. Initially, the sport helped her get rid of energy, Sandner says, but it quickly became her life. She was competing regionally and nationally in middle school and thought it was normal to go to practice at 4:30 a.m.
Sandner, 43, eventually burned out and quit swimming before going to college. She doesn’t think she swam at all, even for fun, while attending the University of Notre Dame for undergrad or Northwestern University for graduate school.
It wasn’t until 2016 that her husband, Chris Sandner, urged her to get back in the pool and swim competitively. By this point, their two kids were becoming independent, and after more than a decade teaching English and journalism college classes, she retired and had a little more time on her hands. After about a year of swimming, Sandner tore her biceps tendon (doing something else) and needed surgery. While resting and rehabbing, she became a Level 3 coach and a USMS-certified Adult Learn-to-Swim instructor.
Sandner draws on three of her passions with MoonFish: teaching, serving the community, and creating opportunities for people with special needs. The last one has always been close to her heart, because Sandner has a cousin with special needs, one of her daughter’s best friends has Down Syndrome, and she helped coach local Special Olympics teams. Now, Sandner has acted on a vision to create an opportunity for a team that bridges the gap for adaptive and nonadaptive swimmers.
“[These kids] are usually told a lot not to do something,” she says. “This is an opportunity to have the equalizer of the water. There’s nothing different about them when they dive in.”
One of Sandner’s goals with MoonFish is to provide a supportive space in which all swimmers can set personal goals and achieve them, whether it’s swimming faster or trying a new stroke or working up to learn how to dive off a block.
Freeman used to jump into the water like a crab, his mother, Lisa Freeman, says, until Sandner helped him learn proper technique. Now he can dive off the blocks.
Coaching adaptive swimmers has challenged Sandner to get creative with her workouts. She'll test drills and workouts before practice to better understand them and to coach her swimmers better. In the pre-COVID world, she’d jump in the pool and show her swimmers what a specific stroke looks like.
Swimming with Sandner has been a “game changer” for Nate, his mom says.
“She knows how to work with them, how to talk to them, how to teach them,” Freeman says. “She’ll be underwater watching his strokes to see how he’s doing. Just lots of high fives, elbow bumps, and a lot of affirmation like, ‘You're a great guy! You’re doing a great job!’ It’s just so supportive. And at same time, she's pushing him to the next level. He’s able to swim at a higher level because of her.”
This personalized style isn’t only helpful to adaptive swimmers. Deb Waszak, a nonadaptive swimmer, appreciated Sandner’s spirit and willingness to work around everyone’s needs.
“It’s such a supportive environment and exactly what I needed,” says Waszak, who initially struggled to find a Masters program she felt like she fit into. “I wear glasses and some of the other Masters groups just write a set on a white board and I can’t see a white board. She’s very flexible in how she coaches. She’ll also announce what you’re going to do, when you’re going to do it, and when to go.”
Waszak was also struck by the MoonFish family atmosphere. Sandner’s husband is known as the “towel boy”—he’s always helping Sandner, whether it's grabbing sun block, waiting for her with a towel, or counting laps for the swimmers. Waszak can’t recall him missing a practice or a meet. The Sandners’ teenage kids, 13-year-old William and 16-year-old Ruthanne, also help out.
“It’s like a family affair,” Waszak says. “That resonates with people.”
Roseann Massari had zero concerns about her 18-year-old son Andy, who has learning disabilities triggered by a genetic condition called neurofibromatosis, joining MoonFish. He’d been in the Special Olympics program but wanted to swim at a higher level, so he and his two brothers—his twin, Jack, and their older brother Matt—joined MoonFish together. The three of them had never been on the same team before.
“Water is the great equalizer,” Roseann says. “You can't tell he’s an adaptive swimmer. All you see is people in the pool swimming. Some are slower, some faster, some have better technique. But he is able to see that he can compete and swim at the same level as his brothers. He was never in the pool with them before, and when you're in the next lane and you see that you touch the side before your brother, you can see you won.
“Andy feels as confident in his ability to be as good as they are. So that’s wonderful because that’s not always the case in other areas of their lives.”
A Model Program
Nate, now 19, has loved swimming since he was 3. He used to jump in the water for hours. “It was a sensory release for him,” Lisa says.
As a child, Nate, who has autism, had severe motor planning issues and struggled to get his arms and legs in sync while swimming. Once he got his arms right, he’d forget to kick or vice-versa. Things eventually clicked, and he joined the Special Olympics program in middle school. He then swam in high school and now with the MoonFish.
“It was a long, long process for him to get to where he is now,” Lisa says. “It really is quite a miracle that he could figure out how to do it. Then when he wanted to learn butterfly, I was like I don’t know, that's pretty hard. But he was determined, and he does it.”
Freeman calls swimming Nate’s “happy place.” It’s a massive anxiety reliever and helps him be calmer. It’s also given him recognition. People at school would praise him for doing so well in a meet, which gave Nate confidence and allowed him to feel good about himself.
“I think it gave him like, this is what I’m good at,” Freeman says. “No one else in the family is doing this. I am good at this, I am strong. He likes that it’s given him muscles. He has a purpose. A lot of other things are hard for him—academically, socially—but he has so much success with swimming.”
One of the most interesting impacts swimming has had on Nate are his eating habits. He used to be the “pickiest eater on the planet,” Freeman says. But he wanted to become a strong swimmer, so he started eating vegetables. Now he’s the healthiest eater in the Freeman family. “The kid will eat a mound of broccoli,” Freeman says with a chuckle.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented and difficult time for everyone, but it wreaked further havoc on Nate. The last MoonFish practice before shutdowns in Illinois was mid-March, and the team didn’t reconvene until mid-June. He likes routines, so it was hard for him to go from swimming four or five times a week to not at all.
“He would just pace because he had all of this energy that he didn't know what to do with,” Lisa says. “Everything was shut down. There was literally nothing for him to do. I'd take him out for walks to get some of that nervous energy out. When he starts getting anxious, he’ll get tics with his mouth or rock in a chair. He didn't know what to do with himself.”
Once MoonFish started having practices again, she told her son to take it slow because his body might not be as strong as it was before the pandemic. She told him to maybe hold off on doing butterfly and focus on breaststroke. He followed his mother’s advice on the first day, but by day two, he was back doing butterfly.
“Kathleen said that it was like he never left swimming,” Freeman says. “He was just so ready to get in the pool that he just went for it.”
In August, MoonFish participated in the Toyota USMS Virtual Championships Powered by Swim.com, a socially distanced pool and open water event that allowed swimmers to race anyone across the country through the Swim.com app. The event helped raise nearly $20,000 for the USMS COVID-19 Relief Program to support clubs across the country.
MoonFish adapted to the circumstances (naturally). Sandner worked the Virtual Championships into a practice in which people swam their respective events in heats. If swimmers weren’t racing, they were doing vertical kick and cheering, getting both an aerobic workout and showing support for their teammates. Afterward, Sandner handed out medals to everyone and had them pose for pictures.
“When they came home, they were all just beaming,” Massari says of her three sons. “They were like, ‘I got this time! I got that time! Can you believe it?’ Kathleen treated it like it was not a virtual race but a real race and made it a special night for them.”
Joining MoonFish has meant different things to each swimmer. Waszak says the club feels like her “second family.” For Andy, it’s been “positive, uplifting, confidence building” and an activity that he and his brothers can do together, Roseann says.
For Sandner, nothing makes her happier than when she sees how diving into the water can totally change a bad mood, be it Waszak after having a tough day at work or Andy after getting frustrated because he can’t figure out his goggles. MoonFish has also meant the opportunity to bring together a group of about dozen swimmers, some adaptive, some nonadaptive, a few years earlier than she thought she would and create an inclusive environment for all of them to continue participating in the sport they love.
“Kathleen is just phenomenal,” Lisa says. “I hope people can model what she is doing at other Masters programs and get more kids like Nate. Because there are other kids like him who swim really well, and there's really nowhere for them to go. So if we can get more Masters programs for [those] with special needs, I think that would be awesome.”
- Human Interest