Self | Culture

I Love Working With Down Syndrome Athletes

How volunteering can feed positivity and contentment into your life — and others.

Sean Kernan
5 min readSep 14, 2023

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Editorial rights purchased via iStock Photos

As I pulled into the Aquatic Center parking lot, I didn’t know what to expect.

I was in my early 20s, a former college swimmer, who’d taken a naïve and untested vow of eternal bachelorhood. At the behest of a friend, I volunteered to coach the Special Olympics swim team — just to give back and get out of my own orbit.

I’d spent years partying, chasing women, and living free. This was an opportunity to slow things down and contribute towards something bigger than myself.

Two coaches greeted me on the pool deck. One was a silver-haired man, Tom. The other was a friendly and middle aged blonde woman, Jen. Minutes later, our swimmers filed onto the deck — and it was unlike anything I’d seen before. It was a mishmash of people of all shapes and sizes, aged 18–60. They were mostly quiet. A few were chatting and laughing.

But I’ll never forget Peter. He was a 40-year-old brown-haired man with Down syndrome. He stood around 5’5, with big eyes, and a huge, magnetic smile that stretched from ear to ear. On the first day we met, he came walking over with another girl, who was shorter than him and pretty. She also had Down syndrome.

He stopped just five feet from me and put his right arm around her shoulders. Then he smiled as if presenting his prize.

“I’m Peter. This is ‘Manda. We gun’ get married,” he said with a slight speech impediment. She lit up with a grin to match his.

“Nice to meet you, Peter. Will I be invited?” I asked.

“Yes. You VIP,” He said while putting his goggles on haphazardly.

There was the full gamut of disabled people on the team. Half were “downs” as we called them. The others were a patchwork of conditions — including a few who were non-verbal.

There’s a common belief that people with down syndrome are joyful and always happy — and to some extent, it feels true as you interact with them. They are often jolly and inspiring, in a youthful and vibrant way. But they also feel the full range of human emotions…

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Sean Kernan

Former financial analyst turned writer. Always on the hunt for a good story. That guy from Quora. Writing out of Tampa, Florida.