Editor’s Note: Today we welcome a new writer to Distressed Mullet, Trish Miller from Key West, Florida, writing about a topic dear to her heart: Coaching the Special Olympics Florida: Monroe County SUP team.


Theres plenty I could do to help her get up, but I held my tongue, and clenched my paddle. Each fall had fatigued her muscles and it slowly chipped away at her ego. She looked first to her mothers eyes and then to mine. Her glasses fogged with the heat of fear and frustration. Holding back the overflow of tears, it was the same look of a child after a fall upon pavement. Is anyone watching? Get over here and help me dammit. I started monologuing what she might be thinking. But these surely werent her thoughts. She placed one hand, then the other flat on the deck. She pressed down, sank the rail and threw her torso forward. She summoned the energy to kick rapidly until her hips were up. Safe space. Lying prone, soaked and heavy, she gulped the warm air to her lungs satisfaction. It was the first time we had practiced recovery in deep water without a rescue flip, or without reaching for the opposite rail for leverage. It was deliberate action, utilized strength and absolutely beautiful. Her mother and I shared a glance of wordless praise. Its on these days that you realize its not about the standing up of paddleboarding that is most important, its the road that gets you there.

There is a movement within the Special Olympics (SO) that has been gaining momentum for more than four years. What was once organized as a charity paddle after the main event, has now evolved into the Annual SO SUP Invitational every October in Key West. It blossomed from 3 to 19 participating counties in two years. This season will be the biggest yet, and they need paddlers with your ability, yes, you, to take the extra step toward recognition as an official sport.

A familiar face will ask for your help one day. You vaguely have an idea of what they do for a living, but can tell there is something that moves them far beyond monetary gain. “I need a volunteer for a weekly Special Olympics SUP training group. You’ll be challenged, scared, encouraged to question everything, asked to be innovative and never want to return to a formulaic square again.” A rolodex of excuses may pop up, but none will stick when something this intriguing is offered.

So let’s go to typical training session which is anything but typical. We’ll head to Lazy Dog which has been working with the Special Olympics of Monroe County for over 4 years. Just before the Cow Key Channel Bridge connecting Key West to the mainland, sits an unassuming Shack where locals and visitors, hugs and handshakes, ideas and hard work swirl together like the winds that keep the banners flying. The energy is high and a crowd will start to gather. Paddlers, coaches and volunteers will be told apart by their respective t-shirts. Some colors are fondly faded from salt and sun, while others have crisp lettering proudly placed to the upper left. Time for warm-ups. You’ve got to think quick before attention spans are, oops, lost a few already. Place your imaginary boom box down (the one with a dual cassette deck and the record button missing) and make it fun. Frog Hops! Sooner than you can squat all the way down and pop up, the sound of ribbits are mimicked by all the athletes on the dock. It’s infectious. A slew of laughter, and amphibious noises starts to gel this group together. Youve got em, now slow it down so they can realign. Behind the madness of these bouncing paddlers, we’re laying the ground work toward a greater goal. Traditional gym squats would get us there just as well, but the name of the game is inclusiveness, so while some can jump everyone can participate with a ribbit and a laugh. [Insert David Attenborough] With stealthy leg strength and flexibility, frogs also have tremendous fun.

One of your faithful paddlers will ask, “Do you remember which board I like?” You bet, we even named it. She’ll hold the nose while you follow at the tail and walk down to the water’s edge. The excited notion that her skill-level will soon move far beyond this particular piece of foam fuels a smile to begin your lesson.

Keep in mind that traditional teaching tactics such as auditory, and visual cues may not work with everyone the same way. How would you change your instruction to help your student? It often starts by recognizing your personal reality is much different than….every human you have ever met. Get out of your own head. Do what you do best and think outside of the box. Start to settle with the notion that your expectation for a particular answer is not always right.

Along with improving physical skills, cognition of environment is at the top of the lesson plan. Observe the water’s movement. Pause your paddling. Be patient, let her figure it out because one day she will do this without you. This is another reason why SUP is a much different sport for your athletes. Not only must they be adept swimmers through their aquatics program (passing certified SO requirements), they must build the skills needed to negotiate their environment. You are teaching much more than the sport of SUP. Your athletes will drive one day, make decisions at work, and the skills solidified upon the water will ground their experiences henceforth. A mentor’s words ring in your ears, “Non-intervention unless danger poses a threat.”

It is my firm belief that volunteering with SO is less about coaching someone with a disability and more about suspending your disbelief, understanding each individual athlete’s  strengths and weaknesses, being inventive, anticipatory, and being patient enough know when to guide and when to let go. This idea was driven home for me when Ruth Holland, Monroe County coach, teacher, avid paddler and catalyst of the Annual SO SUP Invitational, encouraged me to, “let the athlete figure out the process, intercede or direct only to avoid danger. Let natural consequences or effects of nature do the teaching.” The less you say, the more you are able to guide, the less you direct, the more you can support. So for now, stay on your knees, let the warm water slide over your toes and shins, and realize today might not be a stand-up day. Does it matter? How can you turn it around? What skills can you both work on?

For some programs, there will be a role reversal. A group of athletes will get strong, often stronger than the volunteers. They will acquire better boards, and have more experience…so why hold them back? Experienced volunteer paddlers are not only needed to teach the basics, but to keep up with the fastest athletes. Look up and see the look on their faces. Not so much of surprised satisfaction (your own countenance may reveal this), but theirs is something altogether different. That moment when you see your athletes feel the glide, everything changes. Your notion of cant simply disintegrates. It is the look of someone that knew what power they had had all along, and have now found the right outlet for it. Here on the water, we have the opportunity to be our own master.

Of course I’ve described many things you’ll see. But your eyes will see so much more. Your heart will feel so much more than words can describe. And so the next question follows: Why wouldnt you want to be a Special Olympics Coach? Get involved in your local county. If a SUP program does’t exist, make one…that’s what Monroe County did. Special Olympic Coaches and volunteers are literally writing and rewriting the book every time they go out for a practice. Of course we were lucky enough to have innovators like Ruth, a very involved SO and SUP community with a passion to see past the boundaries of paperwork to catalyze a movement.

Inclusion and community are the keys here. “I’ve never seen a sport embrace this idea as much as SUP,” states Ruth Holland. Her counterpart in Collier County, MJ Weibling shares a similar sentiment, “[…] the SUP community is better than any sport that I’ve worked with.” They are talking about the idea of integration, the fact that the Special Olympics is less about medals and more about bringing, “all persons with intellectual disabilities into the larger society.” Yet, how is it that both pioneers, with a combined lifetime of experience in their field view the SUP community to be so unique in exemplifying this? It’s the people.

It’s this connection that melds the larger SUP community with organizations like the Special Olympics. It’s the parents that drive more than five hours to pick up another athlete’s custom board, just after picking one up for their very own little paddler. It’s the volunteers that lug jugs of water and supplies every week. It’s the race directors that insist on having a sprint finish at the yearly SO Invitational because that’s how most SUP races end, and dammit these paddlers are going to be treated the same way! It’s the casual paddlers, turned volunteers, that now attend SO holiday parties. It’s the SUP shops that donate a quiver of adjustable paddles after one conversation. It’s the shapers that meet with families, talk with athletes and customize their boards to include extra deck padding for sitting and kneeling. It’s the behavioral therapists that use colored electrical tape to denote left and right sides of the board. It’s the board companies that actually have grant applications for board and paddle donations. It’s the first place athletes that freely donate their board on the eve of retirement. It’s because they see beyond the structured walls. They’re operating the way they’ve always operated, outside the box. They don’t see disability, they see an opportunity to change something. Because really, we all just want to paddle. Together.

It’s no secret that the SUP industry is fueled by those which choose to test existing boundaries. Outside of the box is where we feel most comfortable. Most were way outside all along. Yet we have eventually found one another, perhaps while paddling away from the rip current of the mainstream. Combine this with a community saturated with love, integration, and acceptance, and you’ve got a powerful formula. Beyond the stereotypes, beyond the glory of competition, beyond training, pushing and striving, beyond the echoes of memories that will not fade, beyond the incessant self-depreciation, beyond the people that love you most, and sometimes hold you back…beyond all this…we are all one human family. Upon the water is where we connect. Beyond things material, it is upon the water where we commune. Here’s to hoping you take another step. Be a fan.

Is really just being a coach.