Miami-Dade County

Swimming success for Down syndrome children

Luis Manuel Perez, 22, teaches Kailee Flores, 1, how to swim at Rockway Middle School’s pool. Perez is a coach at the Down Syndrome Association of Miami and teaches children swimming lessons every Saturday of the week, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Luis Manuel Perez, 22, teaches Kailee Flores, 1, how to swim at Rockway Middle School’s pool. Perez is a coach at the Down Syndrome Association of Miami and teaches children swimming lessons every Saturday of the week, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Miami Herald Staff

Every Saturday morning, Denise Flores sits by the benches at Rockway Middle School’s pool to watch her 1-year-old daughter Kailee learn how to put her head underwater and splash around with her arms and feet.

Kailee, born with Down syndrome, is one of 35 children taking advantage of the free swimming program offered by the Down Syndrome Association of Miami.

“She loved it since day one,” said Flores, 31, who believes socializing is important for her daughter’s development. “It’s good for her to interact with other people besides me, my husband and grandma.”

The association has been hosting Miracle Walk, a one-mile walkathon for Down syndrome awareness, for eight years. This year, it will incorporate a 5K run at the event, which will begin at 7 a.m. Sunday at Coral Gables City Hall.

The coaches can’t wait to show off their prodigies, who were born with an extra chromosome that affects their cognitive skills as well as physical features, including weak muscle tone, small hands and feet and shorter stature. Down syndrome is the most common chromosomal condition diagnosed in the United States; approximately 1 out of every 700 babies will be born with the condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“You are going to see them being themselves, being happy, dancing, singing, running with us and hugging everyone,” said Josefina “Yossy” Ramos, 58, a Venezuelan Olympian and coach who has been teaching swimming classes to children since 2003.

The proceeds from the race will fund the programs offered by the DSAOM, which include swimming classes, hippotherapy, soccer games, speech and language enrichment sessions.

For now, Ramos hopes the organization raises enough money to afford a pool of its own. The swimming helps them develop their muscle tone, which is weak because of their disorder.

“When it’s cold, the pools close and we have no pool for the children to swim. If we had the means to have an indoor pool, the children could swim throughout the whole year, and that would be a blessing,” Ramos said.

According to the CDC, parents of children with developmental disabilities find that recreational activities, such as swimming, improve family connections as well as their mobility.

Jorge Van-Balen, 60, one of the runners and father of a child with Down syndrome, agrees.

“When they are swimming, they are exercising all the muscles in their body and that helps them improve their muscle tone,” said Van-Balen, who has been coaching the swimming classes since 2006.

The swimming program is offered from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every Saturday. Children have a one-on-one 30-minute session with an instructor who teaches them how to overcome their fear of the water, float and use their arms and legs correctly while swimming.

Babies begin with a “Mommy and Me” session, where parents get in the water with the child as they learn the basics of swimming.

Chad Thorson, 32, father of 10-month-old Michael James, signed up for the classes in late August. He said he has seen improvements in his son’s confidence.

“He definitely splashes a lot more than he used to, and he is finally starting to put his head in the water and not freaking out,” said Thorson, who hopes to cheer for his son at a Special Olympics competition some day.

Meanwhile, Thorson, his wife and son will be wearing their running shoes at Sunday’s 5K.

“The run raises awareness and people will learn that Down syndrome is not a scary thing like we used to think it was,” Thorson said.

If You Go

What: 5K for Down syndrome.

When: 7 a.m. Sunday.

Where: Coral Gables City Hall, 405 Biltmore Way, Coral Gables.

Cost: $25 registration fee.

For information: Go to http://www.dsaom.org.

  Comments