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Belle Meade native Beth Scruggs trained her first swimmer for the Special Olympics in 2003, unaware that first lesson would later evolve into the Nashville Dolphins, a free aquatics program for children and adults with special needs.
Fifteen years later, 200 swimmers participate in the organization’s three programs, ranging from those just learning to swim to a team that practices four days a week. Nashville Dolphins offers year-round swim instruction, training and social activities, and utilizes more than 100 volunteers each week at seven pools across Nashville.
We spoke with Megan Kelly, program director at Nashville Dolphins, about how you can make a difference in the lives of local swimmers.
In the last 15 years, Nashville Dolphins has grown from a handful of swimmers to more than 200 participants. How did the organization become what it is today?
Before forming the Nashville Dolphins, Beth was approached by a swimmer with Down Syndrome who wanted to compete in the Special Olympics. That one swimmer eventually grew to eight or nine swimmers. Once they began competing, more parents wanted Beth to teach their kids how to swim.
Not only are lessons expensive, but there aren't many opportunities here in Nashville for children with special needs to learn how to swim. But even as the program expanded, she never wanted to make families feel financially burdened. That’s when she connected with a special education class at Vanderbilt to recruit more volunteers and keep the program free.
You mentioned earlier that none of the programs with Nashville Dolphins have age restrictions.
Yes, the youngest swimmer on the team is eight or nine, while the oldest is 52. A lot of programs phase out students when they age out of the school system, but we recognize that swimming is a lifelong sport. Most swimmers who have been with us for the last 15 years have retired from other sports like basketball because it’s too hard on their bodies. Swimming is something they can do no matter what shape their bodies are in.
What does the organization look for in volunteers?
An ideal volunteer for us is someone who can devote time at least once a week. That means you can meet with the same group of swimmers, and you’ll feel more confident as a volunteer. We have lead instructors in the water who are there to train the volunteers, so our volunteers don't need to have a swim background as long as they're comfortable in the water.
Can you talk about the swim team and what it involves?
Swimmers can join the team once they can swim the length of the pool and follow a coach's instructions. We have three or four swim meets each year, but what makes us unique is that we’re able to offer a free travel meet each year. We choose somewhere outside of Nashville — in the past, we’ve gone to Louisville, St. Louis or Raleigh and other cities — and cover all the expenses. The kids stay in a hotel, wear their gear and are just excited to be somewhere new and in a new pool they've never swam in before.
Is there anything else you would like readers to know about Nashville Dolphins?
We're providing not only a physical opportunity for them but also a social one. We understand the benefits of swimming, and although there are kids who may never learn how to fully swim, we know there's still the benefit of both social interaction and basically a sense of physical therapy because they're working their bodies in a way they can't on land.
This story is featured in Rover's January print edition, which includes features on fitness, health and wellness, as well as tips and other information from cover to cover. Find the full edition here.
Dylan Skye Aycock is a Nashville-based journalist and photographer. As a reporter for Rover, Aycock follows transportation, housing and retail trends, as well as other hyperlocal and city-wide issues that affect residents in Green Hills and Belle Meade.
She previously contributed written and visual content to The Murfreesboro Pulse, American Songwriter Magazine and The Tennessean. Aycock earned a journalism degree from Middle Tennessee State University, where she honed her craft as editor-in-chief of Sidelines, the university's student-run publication. When she's not out on assignment or live-tweeting city council meetings, you can find her discovering new local spots or catching a show at one of Nashville's many music venues.