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The City Journals

Otters Swim Team: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity for Kids with Intellectual Disabilities

Jul 29, 2016 10:34AM ● By Sarah Almond

Instructors Kelly DeLeon and Ivy Hausknecht oversee the group of children ages three through 18 as they practice floating. Drowning is the number on cause of death for children with autism and Otters works with swimmers on vitals skills like floating and turning from stomach-to-back so they are prepared to be safe in the water.—Sarah Almond

By Sarah Almond

Holladay, Utah - Nearly three years ago, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist at Salt Lake County started Otters Swim Club, a swim team for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Today, the program is hosted by several rec centers across the valley.

“It’s essentially a group lesson for intellectual disabilities,” Ivy Hausknecht, the adaptive aquatic manager at the Holladay Lions Recreation Center, said. “And it’s designed for children ages three to 16 or 18.”

The Otters’ youngest member is just 3 years old. They also have an 18-year-old swimmer landing at the opposite end of the age spectrum.

“The Salt Lake County Adaptive Aquatic program has four different levels: water orientation, beginner, intermediate and advanced,” Hausknecht said. “But our team here at the Holladay Lion Rec Center just has water orientation, beginner and advanced.”

Within the three core levels, the Otters also have three to four levels of normal swim lessons to which each swimmer can advance. In the years that Salt Lake County has included Otters in its register of adaptive aquatic options, the program has welcomed hundreds of children and teens with autism and Down syndrome.

“Drowning is the number one cause of death for children with autism,” Hausknecht said. “And that’s why this program is so important; one, they are learning a life-saving skill, and two, when they can accomplish something that’s huge, they feel really proud of themselves.”

When the Otters was established in Feb. 2014, nearly 150 individuals from across the county registered for the program, most of them being placed on a wait list.

“It’s taken us two years to work through that wait list and get everyone off of it,” Hausknecht said. “So we can’t really advertise for the program like they were in the past because we just don’t have the staff with the county.”

Like most of the rec centers in the county that offer the program, Holladay’s rec center has eight members on their Otters team. However, to compensate for the supply-and-demand dilemma that still challenges the adaptive community, the county has developed additional adaptive options.

“Here at Holladay, we have the Adaptive Swim Club, which is basically a masters swim team for people with all abilities,” Hausknecht said. “Right now we only have intellectual disabilities on the team but it’s open to people with physical abilities as well.”  

The Holladay Lions Recreation Center is currently the only facility to offer the Adaptive Swim Club program, but Hausknecht is hoping to expand to other centers around the county in the coming months.

“Running the club program is a lot easier because we don’t have to have the increased amount of staff,” Hausknecht said. “With Otters we have to keep our student-to-teacher ratio so small and we have to keep our class sizes even smaller.”

The rec center also offers an Adaptive One-On-One Program that is essentially a private lesson at a discounted rate,  and Inclusive Group Swim Lessons. For inclusive lessons, children and teens with intellectual disabilities are placed in groups of able-bodied swimmers but have the support of an aid if needed.

“I would say that most of the adaptive swimmers that join Inclusive Group (Swim) Lessons do great, they just sometimes need that extra aid to help them stay on task when the instructor is working with the four other kids,” Hausknecht said.

Though Hausknecht has grown the county’s adaptive program to offer four times the amount of options, she hopes to grow the Otters program in particular.

“We have a lot of different options,” Hausknecht said. “We’d love to expand our Otters, it just takes staff — trained staff.”

Every one of Salt Lake County’s adaptive aquatic instructors has earned their Starfish Swimming Instructor (SSI) Certification. This credential qualifies individuals to teach within the county, but all Otters instructors must complete an additional training lead by Hausknecht, who is SSI certified and also has her Children with Challenges Certification, a national adaptive aquatic certification, along with several other qualifications.

“I do this job for the kids,” Hausknecht said. “The kids are the hardest part and the best part. With a lot of them, they’ve never been able to do sports or join a team. And at the end of every practice, at every level we all do a cheer and said ‘Go Otters!’ We’re able to give them an opportunity that they may never otherwise get, and that’s what keeps us coming back.”