Roman Adams had a look of determination before he dove into the water of Foss Swim School’s Eden Prairie pool. He pumped his arms and stared into the glinting water, hardly able to contain himself.
Clownfish Swim Club was about to start.
Adams, 21, has autism. He is one of about 20 children and young adults with special needs, including autism and Down syndrome, who swim with Clownfish each week.
(The governor’s most recent order has halted their gatherings for at least a month, but they hope to regroup after that with everyone poolside wearing masks).
When asked to name his favorite part about Clownfish, Adams kept his eyes on the water.
“Swimming really fast,” he said, before leaping in and streaking to the far side of the pool. Each time he lifted his face to breathe, he was laughing.
“When he was younger, it was so easy to find things,” said Adams’ mom, Kelly Adams. As her son got older, it became difficult to find programs and activities for him, she said.
“Once you hit a certain age, it really starts to dry up.”
Adams has been on the team for about two years. Multiple parents of swimmers said Clownfish is among few choices for that transition period between childhood and young adulthood for people with special needs.
“I think it’s been life changing for him,” Kelly Adams said.
Swimmers have a sense of camaraderie as they constantly challenge themselves to improve, recording times and trying to beat previous records. Kelly Adams said the swimmers aren’t talking smack to each other; they are high-fiving and lifting each other up.
“There’s a lot of cooperation. It’s incredible,” she said. “Just all levels, like all abilities. It’s not limited to one type of special need or disability.”
The only requirement to join is that club members be able to support themselves in the water. The group was established about 16 years ago with Debbie Zarling at the helm. She initially worked at a physical therapy clinic and oversaw swim lessons for children. When a handful of kids were not allowed to be on the team because they didn’t have physical disabilities, Zarling established a new club that eventually became Clownfish.
“I had 10 swimmers, like, within an hour; people that wanted to do it,” Zarling said.
Ugur Tosun has led the club since 2011. He doesn’t have kids with special needs. He just feels happy to help the swimmers improve their abilities.
He added that his entire day gets better after a Clownfish meet.
Tosun has hired volunteers, mostly high school students, and is trying to increase Clownfish’s social media presence to recruit more volunteers and swimmers.
The group is hoping to start offering get-togethers in St. Paul to be accessible to more swimmers.
Parents currently come from all over the Twin Cities to take their kids to Clownfish meets. Parents also serve on a board of directors where they, too, are finding support and kinship.
“They’re a lovely group of people … and everybody’s invested because they’ve had kids involved,” said Kirsten Nesbitt, a board member and mom of one of the swimmers.
Parents share resources and programs to help with caring for their kids.
“If you’re a parent with a child with special needs, and you want to provide your child with an opportunity to be physical and get exercise and have the community potential for making friends and socialization, this is a great opportunity,” Nesbitt said.
Housing can also be an issue for people with special needs, so a handful of parents came together to find a residence for their children. Now, six Clownfish swimmers will be moving into the same apartment building together in January.
While most swimmers have come and gone from Clownfish, Abby Hirsch, 26, has stuck around. Group leaders call her “one of the original Clownfish.” She even helped come up with the name. Hirsch was inspired by the most famous clownfish, Nemo, a special needs fish with a “lucky fin.”
“Me and my brother always loved ‘Finding Nemo,’ ” Hirsch said. “I looked at my brother and I said, ‘I want to start a swim club, and I want to name it the Clownfish,’ ” Hirsch said.
“So, I told my swim coach, Debbie [Zarling], and she just loved it. We came up with a song, too.”
Hirsch didn’t remember how the song went, but Zarling did: “Everywhere we go, people want to know, who we are. We are the Clownfish!”
Hirsch, who has Down syndrome, said she was afraid of the pool when she was younger. She didn’t want to get water up her nose. Now she’s won a gold medal at the Special Olympics National Games and has nabbed a couple silvers and a bronze with the organization. Hirsch is continuing to follow her passion and hopes to become a personal trainer or fitness instructor.
Clownfish has helped her along the way. She doesn’t even mind water up her nose anymore.
“I love coming here, because it’s part of my daily life,” Hirsch said.
“I’m just so blessed to be coming here. I really am. I love it.”
J.D. Duggan is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.