Neary inspires, helps teach teammates | Special needs athlete to compete at KingCo

Islander Ben Neary during a recent practice at Mary Wayte Pool. The sophomore does not let disabilities keep him out of the pool. - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
Islander Ben Neary during a recent practice at Mary Wayte Pool. The sophomore does not let disabilities keep him out of the pool.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

Ben Neary is just like all of his teammates on the Mercer Island High School boys swim team. He has been swimming most of his life, loves to compete, and he finds solace in his teammates’ friendship, as well as being in the water.

“He has better strokes than some of the guys on the team,” said Islander assistant coach Katie Schaeffer. “Ben often helps some of [his teammates] with their breaststroke kicks.”

But on a team full of scholarship athletes, state record setters and defending state champions, the benefits of swimming for Mercer Island might be greatest for Neary, who has Down syndrome.

“It feels good to be on the swim team,” Neary said, during a recent practice. “I love to go fast.”

Neary began swimming with his mother, Carolyn Neary, when he was 6 years old. He has used the sport not only to get in better shape, but to socialize and achieve goals, just like all of his teammates.

“I am a swimmer, and he could keep up with me when I was working out,” said Carolyn Neary. “My only reservation was Ben’s ability to follow directions.”

Ben Neary has swum in many of the meets this season. His natural ability in the water has led him to overcome some big fears.

He is also the first special needs athlete to turn out for swim coach Jeff Lowell in the 11 years that he has been coaching the boys and girls teams at Mercer Island High School.

“I want him to have a positive experience and feel like he has accomplished something,” said Lowell. “He is just one of the guys here.”

Ben Neary has participated in nearly all aspects of the team’s activities this season and has been embraced by his teammates.

“For the first meet of the season, he came to school with a tie on and dressed like the other guys,” said Lowell. “He was really proud to be on the team and have people ask him about it.”

But joining the high school swim team has been a learning experience for Ben Neary. Focusing on the task at hand and getting over some natural fears have not been easy at times. Ben’s first competitive swimming environment came at the Bellevue Swim Club, where he swam one meet and his mother said it did not work out too well.

“It is challenging to get him to focus sometimes,” said Schaeffer.

Sometimes, the sophomore will get distracted at meets and stop during a race, slowing down the meet.

“He has his good days and his bad days, but we all do,” said Islander teammate Quinn Chasan.

During his first meet, Ben Neary was scared to start from the block and started on the wall. He has since overcome that fear and was practicing starts at a recent workout.

“The meets are better [than practice],” said Ben Neary. “I like the competition. I just like to swim my hardest and have fun.”

“He sometimes gets intimidated by all the people at the meets,” said Carolyn Neary. “Sometimes, he just wants to go home and there is no convincing him otherwise. It was hard at first because all he wanted to do was swim in the shallow end.”

But Carolyn Neary said that the support of his teammates and even competitors, cheering him on at meets, has helped him to keep going.

“He definitely knows what work feels like,” said Chasan. “It is really inspiring to see the joy he gets from swimming, and he is actually pretty fast.”

Schaeffer said that Ben Neary’s teammates have been a positive influence on his improvement: “I have been impressed with his teammates. The guys are really helpful. He is really learning how to work with other people.”

“They are great and very supportive,” said Carolyn Neary. “They really make an effort to include him.”

Along with Lowell, Ben Neary works with two different assistant coaches each week.

“[Lowell] is an awesome coach, and Katie helps me a lot,” the swimmer said. “She always motivates me to go swimming. She is the best coach I have ever had.”

Originally, Ben Neary wanted to play basketball or compete in wrestling for Mercer Island High School, but Carolyn Neary had some reservations about sports that have cuts or are overly demanding.

“He is a pretty good swimmer,” said Carolyn Neary. “It seemed like a perfect fit.”

Ben Neary is an all-around athlete, competing in soccer, basketball and baseball outside school. But the swim team environment is one of the most beneficial activities.

“I would hope that there are transferable skills to use at school and elsewhere,” said Lowell. “I want him to feel more a part of the school community, and I think he is.”

The friendships that Ben Neary has made on the team and the exercise has helped him to feel that he is a part of something big.

“This has really built up his confidence,” said Carolyn Neary. “It is the best thing to see a big smile and know that he is achieving success. He is just on cloud nine.”

Ben Neary’s athleticism and ability to conquer his fears will lead him to his final competition of the season, as he participates in the 3A KingCo Championship meet this Friday at Mary Wayte Pool. But the sophomore said that he will return to the team next year.

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