Making a Splash in Higher Education

Coach Loren Pearson believes in the power of sports.

A lifelong swimmer, Pearson has been an assistant coach for the Las Positas College swim team for 10 years and helped launch the program at its inception. Swimming has meant a lot to Pearson throughout her life; and helped her gain confidence to overcome her own sets of obstacles. In turn, she is passionate about giving back that gift to others – especially those who may not have otherwise been afforded the opportunity.

Pearson is a longtime supporter of programs serving individuals with disabilities and has always had a desire to coach with Special Olympics. A few years ago, she set out to start a Special Olympics team at Las Positas – but quickly realized that with facility rental fees and other logistical burdens, it would not be fiscally possible.

So instead of bringing the athletes to her, Pearson decided to bring her team to them.

Pearson connected with her friend Kerri Hansen, a dedicated coach for the Special Olympics Tri-Valley Dolphins swim team. Hansen, who is a deputy with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and a member of the Northern California Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR) Executive Committee, invited Pearson and her student-athletes to volunteer at weekly practices. And although scheduling conflicts prevented them from being full-time coaches (Las Positas swim meets regularly take place during Special Olympics practice times), Pearson felt an immediate impact – and was subsequently inspired to take an unexpected next step.

“Last year, I had a handful, maybe seven or so, student-athletes who were willing and able to come down to Kerri’s team and help coach,” explained Pearson. “We were in the pool working the athletes and everyone had a fantastic time. And then I started to look around and I'm like, some of these Special Olympics athletes could come to Las Positas, they are really quite good! So I started talking to them and started talking to their parents and found out that, yes, there was an interest.”

Many of the athletes, Pearson discovered, could be eligible and able to pursue community college – but may not have even considered it to be an opportunity. And add on to that swimming for a college team?

“As long as you can swim across the pool and have the right attitude, we want you,” said Pearson. “We coach and teach empathy, inclusion and compassion. These athletes who are coming in are in that exact mold. These are the people we would like to be a part of our team.”

The first athlete to make the jump from the Dolphins to Las Positas was Renzo, who completed his first year as a student-athlete last year. The first year of college is an overwhelming experience for anyone – especially for someone with disabilities. Pearson described Renzo as a “trailblazer” who was able to seize an opportunity and succeed both in the classroom, in the pool and socially with teammates and friends.

“This past year, he did really well. The team loved him,” said Pearson. “They embraced him. At first as a coach I kind of monitored the situation just to make sure it was a safe situation for Renzo - and it absolutely was. From the moment everyone got to the locker room to the time it was time to eat dinner, he was 100 percent a part of the team.”

Renzo said that his first year at Las Positas went well and that he really enjoys competing with the team – his favorite stroke is freestyle. He still swims with Special Olympics when he can and was happy that his Las Positas team earned first place. And along with gaining new friends, Renzo continues to leave a lasting impact on his teammates – in some cases, even changing their outlook on life.

“I'm going to take one student as an example for you,” explained Pearson. “He's been around the swim team for two years and I've also taught him some classes for about four years or so. And I could see that he needed some direction in life and was a little bit lost. So I actually decided to have him be a training partner with Renzo, because Renzo is a very positive person, very passionate, and excited to be at practice every day. I thought the two of them could help each other. And they really did. All of a sudden, the student got so into it; he even told me that he wanted to attend Special Olympics practices as a coach, instead of meets. He dedicated every single opportunity to coach with Kerri and now he has decided to pursue becoming a special education teacher and possibly work with Special Olympics one day as a full time job.”

For this specific student, Renzo – and Special Olympics – had helped him find his path.

“He went from someone with no confidence to someone who has found himself. He found his passion,” said Pearson. “It opened his eyes to new opportunities, new possibilities, and that he can contribute something to society. He was very down and depressed with himself and he then realized that he has a lot of gifts to give. It was really nice to see him grow and mature.”

This school year, at least two more Dolphins swimmers are set to begin at Las Positas and join Pearson’s team. As a coach and mentor, she is excited to continue her relationship with Special Olympics and encourage more athletes to follow their dreams – whether it be in the pool or in pursuing an education.

“A lot of parents and athletes don't realize that yes, you can compete in community college,” said Pearson. “For some, it is a real possibility. There are a lot of different opportunities out there.”

 

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