It’s 4 p.m. on a Tuesday in April at the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center when swimmers from the Junior Rays take to the water. Since 2007, the center has been home to the Rays, special-needs athletes who live with a range of physical, social, and/or developmental disabilities.
There are three teams made up of some 62 swimmers grouped by age: Junior Rays (4-10), Stingrays (11-17), and Mantarays (18 and older). Some of the swimmers live in Pasadena and neighboring cities; others trek to the Aquatic Center from as far away as Claremont and Woodland Hills for the opportunity to develop their strength and endurance, as well as their swimming and social skills.
The program’s affordability at $65 per month, coupled with grant funding, pays for near year-round practices, social gatherings, and opportunities to participate in swim meets throughout Southern California. Some Rays even compete in the Special Olympics.
“The goal is for all the kids to get in a swim meet,” says Kandis Pulliam, the Rays head coach since 2010. “They only need one stroke to do that, so whether it’s freestyle, backstroke, butterfly, or breaststroke, we go with the stroke that each individual kid is good at.”
Colleen Thomas says, “It’s a community within a community.” Her son, diagnosed with autism at age 2, has been swimming with the Junior Rays for the past two years.
At the end of the season in December, swimmers and their families are treated to a holiday banquet. It’s a memorable event for everyone. “Calling each kid up, it’s like [they’re] a rock star,” Pulliam says. “Winning awards and getting that feeling that what you’re doing is worth it … that doesn’t exist in a lot of places for these kids and swimmers.”
Images: Courtesy The Rays