Waterford’s Emblidge takes swimming gold at Special Olympics USA Games
East Lyme — Stephen Emblidge is so competitive that he challenges his family members every week to a Fitbit walking challenge — “Here you go, Matthew,” he said, sending off one such summons earlier this week in the direction of his brother, Matt.
Then, if one of them edges ahead of him, Emblidge will get up and walk around his room a few times until he’s in the lead again.
“He needs and loves to be active,” Cecilia Emblidge, Stephen’s mother, said. “He prefers to be out walking ... and beating us. We all have a Fitbit. Everybody in the family has a Fitbit. And every day we’re told how far behind we are.”
This is the mettle Stephen Emblidge used to compete earlier this summer at the Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando, Florida, representing Connecticut as part of its swimming delegation.
The 32-year-old Emblidge won a gold medal in the 50-yard breaststroke in a personal-best 38.3 seconds, edging his closest competitor by a fingertip, and he took fourth-place medals in the 50 butterfly (32.6) and as part of the 200 medley relay team, on which he swam the breaststroke leg.
Emblidge competed June 6-9 at the Rosen Aquatic Center, with the athletes staying on site at Walt Disney World.
The rest of the family, Cecilia and her husband John and their children Matt, 34, and Lindsay, 29, made the trip to cheer on Stephen, who has been swimming in the Special Olympics — for adults and children with intellectual disabilities — since 1999.
“Excited. Very proud,” Stephen said, asked how he felt to earn the best overall breaststroke time at the games.
“He really raced hard; he wanted that gold medal,” Cecilia Emblidge said. “He went to North Haven twice a week from January to June to practice with the other Team Connecticut swimmers. When he was selected in October, from October to December, it was once a week. They practiced their relay, they practiced their individual races. He’s just really natural, especially the butterfly and the breaststroke. He just picked up the rhythm of these strokes.”
The swimming gene in the family comes from Cecilia, who swam at Harrison High School in Westchester County, New York, and later at Alfred University.
Cecilia is the assistant girls’ swimming coach at East Lyme High School and a volunteer assistant with the boys’ team. She is the head coach of the East Lyme Middle School team, which was on a run of five straight state championships before that got interrupted by the pandemic, and, in fact, there’s rarely a time she’s not at the East Lyme pool in some capacity, also serving on the staff for Nutmeg Aquatics.
Of Cecilia and John’s three children, Stephen is the only one who swam.
“The team sports were a little bit more challenging but since swimming is more of an individual sport, he picked it right up,” Cecilia Emblidge said. “He’s the middle child and the other two did not do any swimming at all. He was the one that did the swimming. He’s been in the competitions in Special Olympics, it’s been 20 years.”
Stephen teases Cecilia by calling her “Coach Mom,” but his support network is vast, from his former coaches with the Southeastern Connecticut YMCA Dragons, whom Cecilia refers to as “fantastic,” to his former Waterford High School swim coach Brett Arnold (Stephen is a 2009 Waterford graduate).
His cheering section extends from Groton Special Olympics coordinator Ellen Cicchese, who runs the program where Stephen participates year-round in bowling, floor hockey, basketball, swimming and bocce, to Team Connecticut swim coaches James Geanuracos and Heather Minervini.
It goes from his dad and sister, who drove him twice a week to distant swim practices in preparation for the national games to a list of welcoming teammates at Waterford High which Stephen still lists fondly: Blaze Adamson, Dwight Tracy and Maggie Ray.
“He’s made so many friends. It’s really good for him,” Cecilia Emblidge said. “I’m happy that he’s doing a sport that he can do his whole life. It’s not something he’s going to age out of.”
It was Stephen’s third Special Olympics USA Games, competing in 2006 in Ames, Iowa, and in 2018 in Seattle. It was his first gold on that stage.
Following Team Connecticut’s appearance this year in Orlando, the athletes were met upon their arrival at Tweed Airport in New Haven by their families, as well as Gov. Ned Lamont and U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal.
“We were so nervous but he came through. He got his gold medal,” Cecilia said. “He really doesn’t show (nerves). He’s like a racehorse. You put him on the block and as soon it goes, ’beep,’ he’s off.”
The Emblidges, who hold an annual pass to Disney and visit the parks often, will return to the Magic Kingdom in the coming days as somewhat of a victory lap for Stephen. Whereas last time he was focused on business, this time his attention will be on roller coasters, specifically “Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind.”
Stephen works weekdays at Puffins Restaurant in Groton. He cheers for New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones — “I miss Tom Brady, too,” he said — and NASCAR driver Alex Bowman.
And he walks.
During the COVID-19 shutdown, with all Special Olympics programs in the area on pause, Emblidge began walking approximately 25,000 steps per day.
Stephen participated in the Road to the USA Games Fitness Challenge and finished seventh overall in the nation, with more than 4 million steps in 20 weeks. He is often accompanied by his dad, John.
“He does that to keep himself in shape.” Cecilia said. “He has a neighborhood circuit, a daily circuit. He goes before work, after work, after dinner, three times a day, about three one-hour walks.”
That makes Stephen Emblidge tough to beat in a Fitbit challenge ... or in anything else, for that matter. He lists his favorite card in the UNO deck as the “draw two,” heaping handfuls of cards on his unsuspecting opponents.
Lately, he has a gold medal to show for his competitive fire.
“He’s been wearing it a lot,” Cecilia Emblidge said. “That one’s special.”