While the athletes came prepared with swim caps, goggles and beach towels, just being in the meet meant that these athletes already reached their first goal.
All 66 of them are members of a local training program for the Special Olympics, a national sports organization that runs competitions for people with disabilities. The swim meet was one of the qualifying rounds for the Special Olympics swimming events that end with the Summer Games held at The College of New Jersey in June. "We try to push them to compete, not to win necessarily," said Union City Swim Coach Sharon Saunders. "If they can come here today, that is a really big jump for them."
Union City has more than 200 people involved in the Special Olympics training programs. Students from both Union Hill and Emerson high schools, and Washington, Thomas A. Edison, Columbus and Robert Waters elementary schools take part in these programs.
While many of Union City's athletes are from the city's schools, athletes of all ages and from all areas participated in the meet last week.
The competition included athletes from both Hudson and Bergen County and included races in all four strokes, along with seven relay races.
Being a winner
"I'm good. I came in first place," said Alfredo Diaz, 13, of Washington School. "I am happy. Hopefully our whole team will go to the state finals."
Although not all of the athletes competing in the meet last week advanced to the state sectional meet at Seton Hall, they all went home winners. Each swimmer received a ribbon for every event they swam in.
However, Saunders said that just being able to compete is an accomplishment for these athletes.
"Sometimes we have kids that can only swim 15 or 20 feet," said Saunders. "Our first priority is to get them to feel that they can do it. They should leave here feeling good, whether they come in first or 25th."
After an athlete works on finishing the entire lap, Saunders said that she begins working on different strokes with them.
Many of these athletes are able to swim all four of the swimming strokes and can compete in many different events.
"They are keeping it a surprise," said Susan Papirio, 33, who trains in Rutherford, about how she was going to swim in the meet on Saturday, although she admitted that the breaststroke was her favorite and best stroke. Saunders said that these events also help the athletes increase their self-esteem.
"When you see the kids receive their medals and the looks on their faces of accomplishment and success then I know that I am doing the right thing," agreed Jacqueline Petretta, who has been the Union City Special Olympics coordinator for the past 18 years. "I get the chance to give them a feeling of success that they may not get academically."
Many of the athletes also have their families cheering them on at these events.
"It's a big event in our family," said Tucker Trimble after watching her son, James, receive a gold medal. "He has three brothers and sisters and everybody is very excited for him."
According to Artie Mortensen, the Special Olympics director for this area, the athletes have to be eight years old to compete, but can start training at six years old.
"I think the oldest swimmer here is 40," said Mortensen.
All of these athletes belong to local training programs, or teams. The Union City athletes have been practicing with their teams since September for this event.
Other sporting events
The Special Olympics has 23 different sports that the athletes can participate in.
"Every weekend there is something going on," said Mortensen.
The Union City athletes take part in the bowling, cross-country and downhill skiing events, swimming, and track and field events.
The Union City Police Department has also gotten involved with the Special Olympics. In the past six years, the department has raised more than $100,000 for the Special Olympics.
"For a small town, the people are really good here," said Detective Edward McGuire, who has been coordinating the Special Olympic events for the police department for the past six years.
The department takes part in three events every year: the swimming event, the polar plunge and the Torch Run that will occur on June 1.
"That is our big event," said McGuire. "We have up to 90 cops run. We just really get into it and we have a good time."