Olympian feats measured in smiles of accomplishment A Special Swimmer

June 30, 1995|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

Paul Day is just a few meters away from his second gold medal of the day in freestyle, and the crowd at the Towson State University pool is going nuts.

He heads toward the wall, his arms rising and falling with a discernible rhythm, keeping time to a metronome only Paul can hear. His legs kick, his mouth lunges for air. His parents, Larry and Louisa, shout their son's name, their hands cupped into megaphones. His friends in the stands -- and there are plenty of them -- urge him on. Officials start applauding even before the race is over.

Four pool lengths after he started, Paul touches the wall for the last time. He jumps out of the water, his arms raised in triumph. His parents, sitting in bleachers about 20 feet above the pool, jump even higher.

No one knows Paul's exact time, and no one thinks Paul is going to parlay his medal into some big-bucks endorsement for sneakers or breakfast cereal. None of that matters now -- just as it doesn't matter that he was the only competitor swimming, or that Paul is mentally handicapped, or that these are the Maryland Special Olympics, not the ones millions of people watch every four years.

What matters is that Paul did it.

"There's a great sense of achievement for him, because of his handicap," his proud father says. "This is one area where he's overcome that, and he is achieving something."

His race won, the 21-year-old Annapolis man is ushered across the hall to the awards ceremony, where he stands alone on the dais to get his medal. When he gets home, he'll add it to a coat rack in his bedroom already weighted down with scores of awards.

More are sure to come.

This weekend, Paul and 51 other Maryland athletes will be in New Haven, Conn., to compete in the Special Olympics world games. With 7,000 participants from 140 countries, it will be the world's largest sporting event this year.

A filmmaker looking to capture the spirit of the Special Olympics, an organization that gives thousands of handicapped children and adults a sense of accomplishment, would do well to follow Paul Day around for a day or two.

His feats are truly Olympian.

Fear and heartbreak Paul Day was 9 months old when he had his first seizure. Just before Christmas, as his mother was outside hanging decorations and his father was inside keeping an eye on him, his small body started thrashing about violently. Then he passed out.

"It was one of the most terrifying things I have ever been through," says his mother, Louisa Day, a media center aide at Old Mill Senior High School in Glen Burnie.

The Days took Paul to the hospital, where doctors ran a battery of tests. They couldn't find anything wrong.

But Paul's problems continued. He had more seizures, and often had trouble breathing. He stopped gaining weight. But the doctors still couldn't pinpoint the problem.

His parents didn't know what to think. They just kept hoping Paul would get better.

"Being mentally handicapped never entered my mind, really," Mrs. Day says. But at 3, Paul was still talking only gibberish. The Days took their son to the Kennedy-Krieger Institute in Baltimore for more tests.

The results were devastating. The doctors said Paul would never be like other children. He'd never read or write. He'd be dependent on his parents for the rest of his life.

"It was heartbreaking," says Mr. Day, an assistant principal at Chesapeake Middle School in Anne Arundel County. "It's not one of those things where you can say, 'OK, this is the way it is, so this is what we're going to do.' Because you've never gone through that before. This was our second child. I really don't know if this had been our first child whether we'd have had the second child or not."

To this day, they still don't know the root of their son's mental handicap, whether that first seizure was a symptom or a cause. For one out of every four mentally handicapped people, their doctor has told them, it's impossible to pin down a cause.

But they came to terms with their son's handicap long ago and point out that he's exceeded many of the doctors' predictions. He can sign his name and read well enough to get by.

"Show him a fast-food menu and you'll see how well he reads," his father says, smiling.

Paul doesn't talk much. He answers most questions with a simple yes or no. Actually, his favorite answer is "I don't know." Ask him what race he's swimming next and his immediate response is "I don't know."

"Sure you do," his mother shoots back.

Paul thinks for a second. "The 100 meters," he says.

He laughs a lot, almost always smiles, and his dark brown eyes reveal an insistent curiosity. "Are you married?" he asks a visitor out of the blue.

"I don't know where that came from," his mother says, shaking her head and smiling.

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