“I love you Ric Olson.”
Coming from within the pool or just before jumping into the pool or as he walked alongside it many times over the past several summers, he would say this to me.
When I heard it this time I looked up and saw Mitch on the edge of the pool. He jumped in and started toward me. I watched as his body bent repeatedly forward and back, arms flailing wildly in front of him and his head moving with unpredictable mannerisms. This is the Mitch I had gotten to know. And once again, we would meet in the Aquatic Center pool.
During the times we talked to each other, he wrestled with putting words around what he tried to say. He asked me to feel his muscles as he flexed his arms out to his side. He asked me if I liked vegetables. He had other “random” questions, as he always did. Sometimes he made random comments. Often, he repeated his questions or comments. When we were finished Mitch would ask me to “give him a hug,” which I did. Sometimes he would add, “I love you Ric Olson,” and I would answer, “I love you Mitch.” Then he would go on his way moving in his own unique manner.
Over time, I had the privilege of getting to know Mitch’s parents. During our many conversations in the pool, I learned that Mitch (at that time in his mid to late twenties) had been homecoming king at his high school. He had won numerous Special Olympics awards in track and field, volleyball, certain winter sports and other sporting endeavors. He was developing some computer skills.
As I learned more and more about Mitch, I realized I had fallen into a very common trap. Based on what I thought I saw and heard, I had put Mitch in a box. It embarrassed and disgusted me to realize I had prejudged him based on external observations. I decided to make a change.
So I began to encourage Mitch to do some actual swimming with me. At first, he only did a couple of strokes and then we would stop. But each time, we added a little more distance in the pool – then came the unforgettable moment.
I had come to realize that Mitch was very, very competitive. Our swimming together had gotten to a certain point where one day, I spontaneously challenged him to a race. Thankfully, the pool offered open space to us.
To my amazement, we swam nearly the entire length of the pool; each of us matching stroke by stroke with each other. And we both got to the finish line. I don’t remember who won the race, but I will always remember one thing – we were both winners!
This July 2019 marks our second summer in Minnesota. I haven’t seen Mitch since that very special moment a couple of summers ago at the pool in Illinois. But every now and then as I visit the Minnesota aquatic center and listen to my heart, I can almost hear the words of my friend at the pool.
“I love you Ric Olson.”