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Special olympics swimmers gain health and confidence through Knights of Columbus team

LANSING, Ill. (May 30, 2024) – Every Tuesday from around Labor Day till June, swimmers gather in Lansing to take part in Knights of Columbus Special Olympics swim practice.

They train for the annual competitions that culminate with the state meet in Bloomington, where the Lansing swimmers earn more than their fair share of hardware.

“He’s got a wall full of medals,” said Mark Cipiich, whose 31-year-old son Keith has been involved in the program for almost 20 years. “I tease him that he has more medals than Michael Phelps.”

That’s just one of the rewards for the participants in the program, which is under the direction of coach Steve Robinette.

The K of C Special Olympics swim team is made up of around a dozen athletes of varying abilities and needs. Their usual home was the TF South High School pool. When that was undergoing maintenance this spring, the team had to take a break until they were able to relocate to the Lan-Oak Park District’s Eisenhower Center pool on a temporary basis.

“This was a blessing that we were able to go and get this (facility),” Mark Cipich said. “We were down for about three weeks. It’s tough. Keith kept asking when we’re gonna go back. He was getting mad because his brother has a pool installation business and he was like, ‘Well, you guys can fix the pool.’ ‘No, it’s a little different pool.'”

But Keith eventually was back in his element, enjoying benefits of swimming such as physical fitness and the camaraderie of being with a team.

Keith had gotten into swimming when he was in scouting and one of the requirements to become an Eagle Scout was to earn a swimming merit badge. He’s stuck with it because he enjoys it so much, according to his dad.

“It’s a commitment,” Mark Cipich said. “But as you can see, he just smiles, he’s loving it. He just loves getting in the water.”

And the laps Keith put in every week help both his body and mind.

Besides aiding his physical fitness, swimming alleviates some of the effects of Keith’s spastic diplegia, a condition that causes muscle stiffness.

And it never fails to boost his spirits.

“It makes him proud,” Mark Cipich said. “And that’s the beauty of it. You can see … the self-esteem and pride (the swimmers) that they get.”

Peaches LeMalle-Davis observes the same things in her son, Rico LeMalle, a 35-year-old member of the K of C team.

“The self-esteem and then the pride — them just feeling that like, I did this. I accomplished this. And with so many people being proud of them it just makes all the difference,” LeMalle-Davis said. “‘This is something I can do and do very, very well and people look up to me.’ … Whereas in the everyday world. he is not looked at like that because of the limitation with his speech.

“But with this, they’re like, ‘Oh, we wish we could swim like that.’ And it just makes him feel so good.”

Keeping the K of C Special Olympics program going requires more than just a pool and coaches. Also needed are enough lifeguards to ensure the athletes are safe during practices.

Bolstering the lifeguard ranks has been a focus for Robinette. The club had a lifeguard class at TF South earlier this spring and, Robinette said, “My goal is to have every coach have lifeguard certification.

“That’s a lot of medical training, a lot of physical work getting them in and out of the water and stuff like that.”

Lifeguards must be re-certified every two years. Having eight to 10 lifeguards in the program, Robinette said, should prevent any shortages that could keep athletes out of the water.

“If we don’t have a lifeguard, there is no swimming,” he said.

And given all the benefits of the program, Robinette and the Knights of Columbus coaches want to make sure that’s never the case.

Mike Clark
Mike Clarkhttps://muckrack.com/mike-clark
Mike Clark is a veteran journalist who has been covering sports in the Chicago area and beyond, from preps to pros, for more than four decades.

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