For Leah Anderson, the rewards of helping Special Olympics athletes maximize their potential are just as great, if not greater, than when she competed as a swimmer and polo player.
“They’ve got huge smiles on their faces, and it’s so rewarding to them and it just radiates off of them,” she said.
Anderson can often be spotted poolside at the Earl Mah Aquatic Centre every week where she spends time coaching Prince Rupert’s Special Olympics swim team.
Sessions consist of warm up exercises in the pool to get the athletes loose and ready for the practice. Then, Anderson gives them instructions on a drill or stroke she wants to see them do, sometimes stopping them at the end of the lap to demonstrate proper form or technique.
Most of the time, she will follow them along the side of the pool cheering out encouragement to help them get from one side to the other.
It’s a routine that’s been a familiar part of Anderson’s life. Born and raised in Prince Rupert, Anderson spent much of her young childhood in or around water sports. Her mother, a life guard and swim teacher at the old Prince Rupert pool, would routinely wake her up for practices or lessons.
“I remember in the early morning waking up super super early in my pajamas and going to the swimming pool in my pajamas,” she said. “It would be 5:30 a.m. in the morning and my mum is yelling, ‘Come on. Get up!’”
Anderson swam as a member of the swim team until she was 15 years old. She then made the transition to water polo, a sport that was more physically intense and exciting that grinding out lap after lap.
“It was something new, something challenging, and it looked like fun,” she said. “If you were good at swimming and were a little speedster and could break away, you would be good. Just the aggressive nature of it was fun and exhilarating as well.”
Anderson spent time playing with the Prince Rupert Polo Bears, the city’s women’s and coed team. She also played for B.C.’s polo rep team, and was able to travel the country playing rival teams from other provinces.
The game would continue to be a part of Anderson’s life as she continued through university, where she completed a commerce degree at the University of Northern British Columbia.
Anderson said she never considered living anywhere else but in the north, and returning to Prince Rupert, she began to volunteer with sports teams and clubs along with her husband, Terry Ramin.
“It was important to us to be involved with what our kids were doing because our parents used to do it for us,” she said.
Eventually, after their children graduated, Anderson and Ramin shifted their attention to the Special Olympics swim team. Ramin saw an advertisement asking for volunteers who would be willing to coach, and the two of them decided to do it together.
Immediately, the sincerity and purity with which the Special Olympics athletes compete stood out to her.
“They don’t have that huge, fearful, competitive anxiety before they hit the blocks,” she said. “The majority of them want to go out there and do their best and have fun.”
Anderson acknowledges that there are unique challenges involved with coaching individuals who have intellectual disabilities, but figuring out ways to help her swimmers understand key concepts is a process she enjoys.
Getting something to click requires Anderson to think outside the box, like when she was trying to demonstrate to a young swimmer how she should move her arms for the freestyle stroke.
“I was having a difficult time getting her to physically bring her arms out of the water,” Anderson said. “I saw a fairy princess in the pool that she’d been drawn to, and I wondered if I could use that.”
Anderson gave the swimmer the princess and told her that it needed air.
“I told her every time her arms go around she has to give air,” Anderson said. “That was eventually how I got her to take her arms out of the water.”
Those ‘aha’ moments are what keeps Anderson in the pool despite the challenges, and she doesn’t see herself stopping anytime soon.
“When you have a tough day at work, and things just don’t seem to be going right, and you end up on the deck and you’ve got smiling faces to greet you and they’re willing to try things, it makes you feel good at the end of the day,” she said.
“It’s a positive environment and it’s fun to help change the world through sport and empower them.”