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When the flash of arms surges above the pool in the magnificent butterfly stroke, it seems that Stephen Emblidge was born to swim - his movements are sure, swift and seamless.
It could be a familial trait - Stephen, who is 22, has a mother who is a swimmer and coach. Of all her three children, said Cecilia Emblidge, Stephen has been the one to take to the water, possessing the coordination and sense of timing so essential in the sport. Cecilia Emblidge coaches her son's team, as well as teaches at Nutmeg Aquatics in East Lyme.
Stephen has been swimming on his Special Olympics team since he was 12, and he started the sport when he was 8. He will be one of the athletes competing in June in the Special Olympic Summer Games held in New Haven.
And Stephen wins a lot - but for Stephen, the competition is only a portion of what he gets out of Special Olympics, said his mother. "He likes to show his medals, but he is only competitive for the day," she said, noting that the Special Olympics Games also emphasizes good sportsmanship.
For Stephen, his swim team, the New London Coastal Cruisers, provides a highly social time, and he and his other teammates are very bonded, said Cecilia Emblidge.
Yet Stephen's distinction in the sport can't be overlooked - and he treasures his medals. In the room at his family home in Waterford, Stephen displays some of his medals on the wall, and others are tucked away in boxes.
Stephen participates in all strokes, in all distances, and has recorded many personal bests in all his events, said Emblidge. In addition, he has been a regional, state and national games participant, taking part in the first ever National Games in 2006 in Ames, Iowa. Stephen was also a member of Waterford High School's swim team, and the YMCA swim team The Dragons.
One of his favorite swimming strokes is the butterfly. When asked about it, Stephen, who greets people in a gentle and polite manner, says he prefers it because he is good at it.
When he wins, Stephen said that he "feels great, and I feel proud."
At the games, Stephen will compete in the 50-butterfly, the 50-backstroke, and the 50-freestyle.
Swimming isn't Stephen's only sport, he also plays golf, bowling, floor hockey, and baseball. "He's very busy," his mother said. And if he isn't doing the sports, he is watching them online, avidly following the New York Yankees and even NASCAR. He also works at Puffins, a Groton restaurant, as one of the wait staff.
"We love Stephen," said Eileen Cicchese, program supervisor of Inclusive Programs for People with Disabilities at Groton Parks and Recreation Department. Stephen's swim team is not part of Groton's program, but Cicchese knows Stephen from his participation in many sports run out of her program.
"Stephen is a competitor - he works hard, likes to win, and he's a great athlete in every sport he does with us - he does phenomenal ... he's charming, and he's a good guy," said Cicchese.
Through the program run out of Groton Parks and Recreation, athletes train for 14 different sports, and competing at the Summer Olympics is their biggest event, one that the athletes look forward to. In addition to the competitions, the athletes also socialize, attending a dance and staying overnight at the dormitories at Southern Connecticut State University, where the games are held. "It's like a reunion for them," Cicchese said. "It's the athletes' time to shine."
Stephen has been staying overnight at the Summer Games since he was 13, said Emblidge, and has had a great time. Coaching her son's team gives her time with him, and is also very rewarding, she said.
"He has a firm idea when I'm here, I'm the coach," Emblidge said. The team needs all levels of coaching, some members need more support than others, and Emblidge, who coaches with another mother, Bonnie DeCosta, said they learn quite a bit from watching each other. The team athletes possess a wide array of ability, and some athletes are self-taught.
In an interactive relay Emblidge divided two groups to race with a large octagon-shaped float fashioned with many hand holds. The octagons were thrown in - one for each team, and each team pulled it through the water from one end of the pool to the other. Emblidge cheered both teams on, encouraging athletes who needed a boost.
"It's very rewarding," Emblidge said. "Sometimes it's the hardest job in the world and sometimes it's the easiest," she commented on coaching. "They all have big hearts and want attention," she said of the team.
Stephen's team has been together for eight years, so they are tight-knit and kind to each other, said Emblidge.
"They like to do things everyone else does. They love the music, love to dance. All their interests are similar, if not the same, as other people's."