Rarely do successful sports teams share their secrets with one another, but that’s exactly what happened at the Libertyville Stars’ swim practice on April 15. And the results could have life-long effects on both teams.
The Libertyville Stars, a special swim club of 31 athletes with cognitive disabilities, trained with 25 swimmers from the men’s and women’s swim teams of Lewis University, led by head coach Roger Karns and graduate assistant coach Steve O'Leary. The Lewis University swimmers spent an hour in the Libertyville High School pool, working nearly one-on-one with the Stars on improving their swimming technique. In return, the Stars taught the Lewis swimmers some life lessons.
This was a homecoming for assistant coach Steve O'Leary, who was a volunteer peer coach for the Stars when he was a student at Libertyville High School. It was O’Leary’s idea to have his team make the trek to Libertyville from the Romeoville campus, 30 minutes southwest of Chicago.
"One thing makes the Stars different from most other Special Olympics swim teams is that we recruit competitive area high school and former college swimmers to serve as volunteer peer coaches. They are not only some of the area’s best athletes, but they tend to be outstanding people who have a warm place in their hearts for people with disabilities,” said Stars coach Becky Peacock, of Libertyville, who co-founded the team in 2000 along with coach Ann Davidsen, also of Libertyville.
“The Stars had a major impact on my life. I’ve always been inspired by their positive attitude and their work ethic,” said O’Leary. “I knew our swimmers would love working with the Stars, and I’m sure we learned as much from them as they learned from us. At the end of the day, both teams share the same talents and passion for swimming.”
After the practice, both teams met in the LHS cafeteria for a special presentation. Three of the Stars shared life lessons from the Stars team.
"One of the reasons we have been successful as a team is that when we compete, we aren’t really focusing on beating our opponents. Instead, we’re trying to improve ourselves and beat our own times," said Melanie Harwood of Libertyville. "When we do that, it doesn’t matter if we come in first, second, third, or last. When we’ve improved our own time, it’s a personal victory."
"The lesson that I’d like you to learn about people with special needs is that we have a lot in common with you," said Rocky Rochlitz of Marengo. "We work hard just like you. We love to swim and compete hard just like you. And we love to have fun. One rule we have on our team is that we try to build each other up. Our team is about encouraging each other, friendship, fitness and having fun doing the best we can."
"My lesson is simply this: No matter who you are or what you become after you graduate, you can always make a positive difference in the world," said Blake Peacock of Libertyville. "Special Olympics has taught me that it's NOT about my skill level, nor is it about my IQ that makes me a winner. It's about always doing your personal best and having a positive attitude, no matter what life throws at you. Each and every one of us has the ability to make a positive difference. Thank you for making a difference in our lives today."
To commemorate the day, each of the STAR swimmers "awarded" their guest coaches with something extremely meaningful to the athletes: one of their personal gold medals earned at a recent Special Olympics district aquatics meet. A record-setting twenty-three swimmers from the Libertyville Stars Swim Club earned the gold medals, qualifying them to compete in the Illinois Special Olympics State Summer Games, which will take place at Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal, June 15-17. The Stars are in their 12th successful year.
Libertyville Stars Swim Club
31 team members, ages 16 to 46, each with cognitive disabilities (including Down’s Syndrome and various developmental disabilities).
Head coaches: Becky Peacock and Ann Davidsen
Becky Peacock is a mother of one of the Libertyville Stars swimmers, Blake (who has Down Syndrome). Serving as an advocate for people with disabilities, Becky strongly believes that when disabled and non-disabled people interact with each other, it brings out the best in everyone and they learn so much from each other. Becky coaches many Special Olympics sports (including swimming, tennis, alpine skiing, and snowshoeing). She coached her son when he represented Team USA in the World Winter Games in 2001 (Snowshoe); and was a head swim coach for Team USA at the 2003 Special Olympics World Games in Ireland.
Ann Davidsen is a former competitive swimmer at the University of New Mexico, the University of Alabama, and various Masters clubs. She is a licensed occupational therapist and certified water therapist. Ann’s daughter, Dana, also a collegiate swimmer, was one of the team’s first volunteer peer coaches. Because of Dana’s involvement with the CATS Aquatic Team, it gave the team instant access to an accomplished group of junior high and high school swimmers, who became the core of the volunteer peer coaches.
Lewis University Swim Teams (The Flyers)
- 25 team members (11 men, 14 women)
- Head coach: Roger Karns
- Graduate Assistant Coach: Steve O’Leary
- Roger Karns was hired in October 2011 as the fifth men's and women's swimming head coach in Lewis history. The 2012-13 season is the second for Karns at the helm of the Flyers. Karns has 32 years of experience as a swimming coach. He has coached NCAA All-Americans, High School All-Americans, Junior and Senior National Qualifiers and Olympic Trials Qualifiers throughout his distinguished career. He is an American Swim Coaches' Association Level Five coach. Before Lewis, Karns served as assistant coach at Grand Valley State University from 2008-11. Karns helped the Laker men's and women's teams to top-10 finishes at the NCAA Division II National Championships in each of his three seasons. He was also influential in helping Grand Valley State to a pair of Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Championships. The men won in 2010 while the women took home the title in 2009.
- Former Lewis swimmer Steve O’Leary was hired as an assistant coach for the Lewis University swimming programs in August of 2011. The 2012-13 season is the second for O'Leary at Lewis. He served as Lewis' interim head coach in August and September of 2011.O’Leary swam for Lewis from 2005 to 2007. He served as a captain during the 2006-07 campaign, and holds the school record for the 400 individual medley. He graduated in 2008 with a degree in sports management and a minor in athletic coaching from Lewis. O’Leary spent three seasons as an assistant coach for Lincoln College in Lincoln, Ill. prior to returning to Lewis. The Lynx broke 37 pool and 36 school records during his time at Lincoln. He coached over 100 NJCAA All-Americans and a pair of national champions in the 500 and 1650 freestyle. He was a coach for the Lake Forest Swim Club from 2008 to 2010.
In 2011-12, new Lewis school records were set in the women’s 100 butterfly, women’s 200 freestyle relay, men’s 100 breaststroke and men’s 400 individual medley. Lewis’ new women’s 200 freestyle relay record broke a 10-year old mark.
This news release was submitted by the Libertyville Stars.