When Tiffany Thomas walked into the Valley-Shore YMCA in Westbrook one drizzly April afternoon, she was all smiles and questions.
She chatted up a girl who had injured her leg but would still try to swim during practice that night. With her boyfriend Ernie Swaney and her mom Cindy Thomas at her side, Tiffany, 32, was in her element, her smile lighting up the room.
It wasn't always this way, Cindy Thomas said. A special needs child who was diagnosed with mild mental retardation and a learning disability, Tiffany, who grew up in Bethany, was marginalized in school and had few friends.
"There was just kind of a void in her life," Thomas said.
Becoming an athlete with the Special Olympics of Connecticut changed all that. A multi-sport athlete, Tiffany, of Lyme, is also on the bowling team. She started off on the equestrian team in 1985 and has played softball and basketball and run track.
She began swimming competitively around seven or eight years ago and hopes to one day start a ballroom dancing team.
Tiffany competes in the 25-meter freestyle, 25-meter backstroke and relay race. Thomas said her daughter early on would get upset if she didn't win. But these days, Tiffany said swim meets are fun, not stressful.
"I don't get nerve-wracked," she said.
At the Y, Tiffany sported a navy bathing suit with pink trim. Her nails were done in blue, and she chatted with her friend Shannon in the pool while waiting for her turn to swim a lap. Swaney and Cindy Thomas watched from the bleachers - unlike many other Special Olympians, Tiffany always has a cheering crew at the ready, even at practice.
Becoming a Special Olympian has also given Tiffany a social circle she never had before. Competitions aside, the organization gives Tiffany occasion to go to parties and dances, something she didn't get to experience in high school.
"She never went to the prom. She never did the social thing," Cindy Thomas said.
At first encounter, Tiffany may not come across as someone with special needs. But she'll never be able to live independently - she lives at home with her parents, her three sisters and their respective spouses or significant others, not to mention 10 horses, goats, chickens, ducks and a pig - and she can quickly lose self-control when faced with disappointment, her mother said.
Special Olympics has helped her composure
Special Olympics has helped Tiffany maintain her composure where tempers may have previously flared, Thomas said.
"Special Olympics, they push that," Thomas said. "Just do your best. If you can't win, and you don't win, that's OK. You did your best doing it."
Tiffany was a happy baby, but Thomas, who has a degree in education and training in special education, knew within six months that something wasn't quite right.
"She wasn't, like, following objects," Thomas said. "As she got older, she couldn't do, like, patty cake. ... She just wasn't developmentally there."
Thomas fought to keep Tiffany in the public school system and always told her that she could do anything she wanted. It may take you a little longer than other people, she told her daughter, but you can do it.
Tiffany graduated from Amity Regional High School in 1998.
Today, Tiffany is in charge of a lot of the farm chores at home, including taking care of her beloved horses. She hangs out with her boyfriend and goes to tag sales with her mother on weekends.
And, of course, she goes to swim practice once a week during the season.
Tiffany's coach, Steve Sawyer, called Tiffany "a good leader" with an abundance of enthusiasm. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Tiffany joined the boys' relay team when there were no available girls' team.
Tiffany's relay team promptly won gold.