LTHS swimmer with Down syndrome inspires teammates

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By David Pierini

Staff photographer

After two hours of sprints, power jumping and long lunges, another two hours and 8,000 yards of water separate swimmers from the end of practice. 

Lyons Township High School coach Scott Walker has seen these Saturday morning workouts break young men. The stumble happens around the three-and-a-half hour mark, when an exhausted boy starts to question, "What am I doing here?"

Walker said swimmers realize they have no excuse to quit when they glance over at a small cool-down pool where one swimmer works on his flip turns. When his head pops out of the water, he is smiling.

Patrick Schneider is the best motivational speech Walker never gave.

Patrick, 16, has Down syndrome and is completing his second season with the Lions. He is at every practice no matter how early in the morning and is often the first in the pool and the last out. He swims two to three events in the dual meets and though he doesn't score a single point with his races, coaches and swimmers say Patrick provides the emotional muscle for a team having one of its best seasons. 

"He's absolute gold," said Walker, whose Lions are 5-1 in dual meet competition and are expected to qualify several swimmers for the state meet. "It's kind of hard to feel sorry for yourself when you see Patrick working so hard. But it's not something I have to say. You can see it happening."

Patrick's impact can be seen in the locker room about five minutes before the start of meet. He emerges from a team of 75 guys to stand on top of a bench and deliver a rousing pep talk with lines like "do your best" and "you gotta swim fast." The speeches end with deafening shouts, raised arms and high-fives, the swimmers' minds now thoroughly prepared to handle the demands of their events.

On Saturday mornings, the "dry land" calisthenics usually end with the seniors leading the formation of two passing circles of swimmers who high-five one another. But Patrick assigned himself to the very front and the seniors deferred to his leadership.

"He brings the whole team together," said junior Jack Linden. "He's trying just as hard as us. When he's in the water, all of us are up cheering.  He motivates us to swim faster. He not only impacts our swimming, he impacts our whole life with his happy attitude."

Patrick's impact is at times jaw-dropping.

During one practice, he insisted on a swim-off to challenge one of the team's top freestylers. The swimmer was not sure what to do but he obliged Patrick's request.

The swimmer allowed Patrick to stay close in the race but in the end won easily. Still, Patrick swan a personal-best 53 seconds in the 50-yard freestyle.

Walker, assistant coach Dana Krolikiewicz and some of the swimmers were shocked one practice to see Patrick teaching a new teammate how to swim.

Richard Zuniga did the unthinkable by coming out for swimming his senior year without knowing how to swim. Walker told him he would not get cut as long as he made every practice and did what was asked of him.

"When I first got in the pool I thought I was going to drown," Zuniga said. "I thought I was going to have to teach myself how to swim, but Patrick was there to show me the ropes. He told me how to streamline, taught me the different strokes and would show me, 'This is what you're doing. You should do this.' He knows what he's talking about."

Patrick is not the only Schneider to lead a swim team. He is the brother of Mimi Schneider, a state champion swimmer who just closed out her stellar high school career at Fenwick High School and is heading to the University of Texas on a swim scholarship.

Sheila and Craig Schneider knew there were complications before Patrick was born, but they were determined to give him the best life possible. That meant treating him no differently than their other three children and exposing him to the family's love for sports. 

They were delighted when Walker approached them and asked about Patrick coming out for the swim team.

"We were lucky he was born into a school district that works really hard at inclusion," Sheila said. "Usually, it's the parents that have to ask if their kid can be included. He wants to be part of a team and the kids want him on their team."

His teammates know his personal-best times in all of his events, which include two relays, and keep an eye on the clock when he completes a swim with hopes he has shaved off another second. They take turns driving Patrick to the Thursday night pasta parties, and when he stepped on the court for a recent Special Olympics basketball game at the school, the entire swim team was there to cheer him on. 

There is a slight drawback to all the cheering. Coaches say Patrick would swim faster if his teammates would stop rooting so loudly. During a race, he pauses and pops his head up to feel the excitement

"He wants to enjoy the moment," Walker said. "I don't think I can tell them to not cheer. They know this is something special for them."

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Linda Winowiecki-Burkhardt from La Grange, Illinois  

Posted: February 5th, 2014 11:30 PM

What a touching story. Patrick and his teammates are forever changed by his friendship. They will be more accepting & kinder to others. I know, I have a Brother Paul with Down Syndrome who turned 48 last month. Growing up he was one happy guy. We have learned a lot from him.

Brenda Bylaitis from Westmont, Illinois  

Posted: February 5th, 2014 2:16 PM

Every Team needs someone to hold it together. Especially swimming. Unless you are swimming a relay, it's easy to think of swimming as an individual sport. But as a team we need our teammates to push each other in practice and to cheer for each other. Otherwise, we just don't know what our potential can be.

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