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The Journey of a Special Olympics World Champion and Her Parents

Abby Reznek has loved the pool since she was a baby, splashing around in an adapted aquatics program run by the county parks system in her Maryland community. Abby's mother, Karen Reznek, recalls: "She did not put it all together until her younger sister started swimming. The next day, Abby was swimming, and within a few days she was swimming across the pool."

Abby, who is autistic, has been swimming ever since. This summer, she won gold, silver and bronze medals in the Special Olympics World Games.

"One of my most favorite moments at the Special Olympics World Games was winning the gold medal in the 4x100 medley relay. I also enjoyed winning second place in the 200 freestyle, third place in the 100 backstroke and fourth place in the 100 freestyle. I also enjoy teaching swimming to people with special needs and without. In the past, I have assisted with one-on-one swim lessons for people with disabilities. I have enjoyed doing that," says Abby, who is 29.

The LISTSERV Connection

Karen considers LISTSERV lists to be key in her family's journey through Abby's childhood and to this day:

"Back in early 1994, my husband and I hooked a modem up to our computer and subscribed to a Bulletin Board System (BBS) so we could learn more about how to help our autistic daughter, then 7 years old. The first thing we did was to subscribe to the Autism LISTSERV list. It was an eye-opener. Not only were we able to connect with other parents who had been there and done that, we were also able to connect with autistic adults who were finding each other for the first time and building a strong, vibrant autistic community. The information, advice and support received were invaluable and a strong contributor to how well my daughter Abby, a part of that community, is doing today."

Karen describes how, as more and more people joined the Autism list, several new and more specific LISTSERV lists were formed. "I was fortunate to be able to join lists geared mostly toward autistic adults, while welcoming parents who would be respectful, and Asperger, a list geared toward parents of children who could handle more academic school programs. I ended up becoming a list owner of Asperger, which led me to become one of the founders of The Information Center for Online Resources and Services, Inc. (ICORS)."

Fast forwarding to Abby's young adult years, she adds: "Abby joined the Special Olympics of Maryland, Prince George's County (SOMDPG) swim team two years after graduating from high school. Once she started competing and did well, she worked very hard to improve and gain new skills. She joined our closest indoor-outdoor pool facility and started spending 12-20 hours per week training. That paid off, as Abby started competing in more and more difficult events, regularly winning gold at the 1500 freestyle and 200 butterfly, as well as the 200 backstroke and the relay. Last fall, we learned that Abby had been chosen for a spot on Team USA Aquatics for Special Olympics Worlds 2015. Abby buckled down and trained even harder, determined to do well at the Worlds. And she did!"

To strengthen information flow between athletes, families and coaches, Karen joined the management team of SOMDPG and immediately set up lists for the teams Abby was involved with, and then, with a donation from L-Soft, launched LISTSERV lists for all teams, under a master SOMDPG list.

"I subscribe to the team email lists. It helps with the communications for the Special Olympics teams that I am on," Abby notes.

A Champion Athlete Reflects

The determination and hard work Abby has demonstrated from her earliest years have brought her positive experiences, both in the swimming pool and, as swimmers would say, on dry land.

"Special Olympics has helped me socially and physically mature. I have had opportunities with Special Olympics like being in the Rose Parade, going to World Games and other events that I normally would not have had a chance to do in life."

Abby describes her weekly training schedule, with a minimum of five days a week in the pool for one to two hours each day. "Some days I do long-distance swimming and other days I do 100 butterfly, back, breast, free and side stroke x 4 and, of course, 20 lengths of front crawl for warm up. I also work on kicking, breathing, arm movement and other techniques." But to Abby, it's much more than the daily work of a swimming star: "If I don't go swimming every day, I get irritated. Swimming is my lifeline. Swimming helps keep me fit and healthy. I always feel better after swimming. I am so determined to swim even when I am on vacation or traveling that I always pick a hotel with a swimming pool so that I can keep fit when traveling."

When Abby isn't swimming, she is still busy and on the move: "I am walking around, doing office work for my job such as data entry, filing, copying, mailing and helping other people with their projects. In addition to swimming I do martial arts, floor hockey in the fall and basketball in the winter. I also strength train and do cardio machines year-round. I also attend worship services on Friday night or Saturday morning whenever I can. I also just finished power lifting for the season. I bench-pressed 70 and dead-lifted 125 pounds. I lifted more than my body weight."

Tips for Parents and Athletes

Karen reflects on the support she received on the Autism LISTSERV list beginning two decades ago that proved pivotal on the path of parenting the child who, unbeknownst to her at the time, would become a world champion athlete. "The generously shared knowledge changed my perspective on autism, from something that needed to be cured, to something that could be worked with. I was able to start working with Abby's strengths, while gently remediating her weaknesses, with the goal of enabling her to grow, learn and function as an autistic person, rather than attempting to make her look as neuro-typical as possible."

For parents of children with special needs and adults with special needs who are looking for information, support and connection, Karen's tip is: "Check out ICORS. We have a wealth of lists covering many issues, full of people who want to reach out and provide the support you need. If we don't have it, somewhere else might. Do reach out for that support, ideally from a list or organization that includes many adults with your particular issue or disability among its decision-making board or list owners."

Abby offers some advice for young athletes: "I would say eat well, train hard and have fun. I want to inspire other people with disabilities to learn to swim, and then they can keep fit also. Swimming helps me relax after a long day of traveling, sightseeing or working. It was an honor to be selected for Team USA and swim in the World Games."

As an unforgettable year of Olympic gold, silver and bronze wraps up, Abby looks ahead: "In the future I want to become a certified Water Safety Instructor and teach people with and without special needs how to swim. I also want to continue my swim training because it helps keep me fit and I enjoy swimming. I have always been swimming back and forth across the pool, ever since I was a child."

Read the Special Olympics Maryland, Prince George's County case study:

Read the ICORS case study:

View Hometown Heroes video featuring Abby:

See Special Olympics of Maryland video interview with Abby:

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