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Swimming Spirit: Lindsay's battle with autism inspires others

Photo: Andrew McMurtrie. Charles Lindsay will participate with the Eastmont Cove swim team in his third Gwinnett County Swim League championship. Lindsay, 16, who is autistic, will swim a 50-yard freestyle for swimmers with special needs.

Photo: Andrew McMurtrie. Charles Lindsay will participate with the Eastmont Cove swim team in his third Gwinnett County Swim League championship. Lindsay, 16, who is autistic, will swim a 50-yard freestyle for swimmers with special needs.

SNELLVILLE — As in many years past, a very special event will kick off the 2011 Gwinnett County Swim League Championships today at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center.

It’s called the Spirit of the League, and it’s a 50-yard freestyle event that allows swimmers with special needs to compete and achieve.

Perhaps no participant personifies the Spirit of the League event more than Charles Lindsay.

SWIMMING

What: Gwinnett County Swim League’s County Championships

When: Today-Sunday

Where: Georgia Tech

Defending champion: Chateau Elan

Schedule:

Today

• 9:20 a.m. — 9- and 10-year-old finals

• 3:15 p.m. — 13-14 and 15-18 finals

Sunday

• 9:15 a.m. — 8-and-under finals

• 3 p.m. — 11-12 finals

Diagnosed as having autism with severe language impairment at age 2, the 16-year-old has had plenty of obstacles to overcome in his young life.

Yet, he has become an inspiring figure on the GCSL’s Eastmont Cove Olympians team since joining three years ago.

“He has brought far more to the team than any benefit the team has had for him,” said Eastmont Cove parent and former team council member Bridget Koschella. “I think the younger kids look up to him and cheer for him, and to see everybody pull for him when he swims (is inspiring). Last week, I saw a parent on the sideline almost crying watching him swim. She was so impressed.”

Indeed, Lindsay has come a long way since joining Eastmont Cove three years ago.

Being able to participate in today’s event in front of thousands of swimmers and spectators has been a big step for him.

“When he was younger, he would’ve run away,” said Patricia Lindsay, Charles’ mother. “(People with autism) are often afraid of change. The more you open them to it, the more they get comfortable.”

Swimming has proven to be a new world for Charles Lindsay to open up to.

Patricia, a Snellville homemaker, and her husband Fitzroy, a fire alarm technician with the DeKalb County school system, had long found athletics to be a positive outlet for their son.

Charles, who will be a sophomore at Parkview High School beginning next month, had participated in the Special Olympics program in several sports like volleyball, bowling and even baseball in the past.

As time went by, it became apparent to Patricia that he really enjoyed swimming, as well, but finding a program well-suited for him was a bit of a challenge.

“I know he loves the water,” Patricia Lindsay said. “I took him to Special Olympics to join a swim team. ... An assessment was done, but when it was time to get information about going to the big games, we were told ... we could only come Sundays with the more severe (impaired) kids. I think it was because it was so crowded and not enough time was spent with him to see what he could do. Charles is considered moderately functional with speech and language impairment, but I know what he can do. He just requires more work and attention.

“We were searching for swimming lessons, and we saw Eastmont Cove online among a list of different teams. And we live close by.”

Even though it seemed Eastmont Cove was a perfect fit for the Lindsays, it seemed the pace of the surroundings would work against Charles again.

When Patricia brought Charles to the team’s first practice in June of 2009, it didn’t look like they would get to stay.

“It was not brought to my attention (at that time) that there was any special needs,” Eastmont Cove head coach Susan Moody recalled. “That first day of practice when there are 130 kids is kind of chaotic. I did not even see him.”

The assistant coaches who had evaluated Charles weren’t sure they would be able to accommodate his needs.

Dejected, Patricia and Charles began to leave, but they didn’t get far.

Koschella and Peg Westbrook, another Eastmont Cove council member who had taught Charles as a substitute teacher at Shiloh Middle School, caught up with the Lindsays in the parking lot before they left and invited them to stay.

“We didn’t want to lose him,” Koschella said.

Though it is still difficult for Charles to keep up with other swimmers his own age, Moody says his swimming technique has improved dramatically since he joined the team.

“In the 50 free, he’s about a minute, 15 (seconds), and in his age group, most of the boys are in their 30s,” Moody said. “He usually is one of the last ones in the water, but we’ve gotten him to put his head down and not just doggie paddle. The next thing is trying to get his arms out of the water.

“His stroke work, the concept of getting your hands out of the water (is better). This year was the first year he could do backstroke. We tried to do backstroke last year, and it didn’t work. He also goes to water therapy. So I think that has helped, as well. ... As he’s matured and understood the concept of being relaxed in the water. He was very rigid the first year, and so there was ... a lot of tensed muscles. He has since relaxed more in the water.”

There have been setbacks.

The biggest one came shortly after Charles joined the Eastmont Cove team when he suddenly began suffering from grand mal seizures.

Three times that summer, emergency personnel were called to the pool to deliver medical attention, providing some scary moments.

“It took me awhile to let him go back,” Patricia Lindsay admitted. “By the grace of God, he wasn’t in the water (when the seizures occurred). ... I pray that will never happen. But the doctor said it shouldn’t stop his activities.”

Medication helps control Charles’ seizures, and Patricia walks along the side of the pool as he swims to help watch over him, as well as encourage and guide him through his event.

It has turned out to be just another obstacle Charles has been able to overcome.

While there are still more to overcome, Patricia says she and Charles will continue to work hard to do just that.

In addition to new athletic challenges, Patricia Lindsay says she and Fitzroy are trying to get Charles into Lindamood Bell, an instructional program designed to teach children and adults to read, spell, comprehend, think critically and express language.

In the meantime, today’s event will be the latest accomplishment in what has been a strong relationship between the Lindsays and Eastmont Cove.

“There’s so much more for him to do,” Patricia said. “The (Eastmont Cove) community has been awesome — Coach Moody, the parents, the kids, everyone. We’re very moved by the love shown to my son and myself. I want to thank them.”

The feeling has been mutual.

“The parents, the kids, everybody incorporates (Charles) into the team and cheers for him — including the opponents,” Moody said. “When they realize (his disability), ... they’re all encouraging him.

“Really, he’s an inspiration to all of us. His mother is an inspiration as a parent — the amount of effort it takes for her and her commitment to him. And because he’s non-verbal, a lot of it is the high fives, the shaking of the hands, the smiles, that the kids react to.”