Beloit Memorial High School sits right on the banks of the picturesque Rock River. It’s an undeniably gorgeous setting for a high school.
However, soon after Lori Lange began working there as a special education teacher in 2016, she came to view the river as more than just a beautiful backdrop when she discovered that many of her students with intellectual disabilities could not swim. She soon set out to find ways to provide them with swim lessons to increase safety around the water. Ultimately, she worked with the school’s longtime swim coach, Richard Vogel, on an innovative new program that would enable the school’s lifeguard students to teach Ms. Lange’s students to swim.
“This happened to correspond with Special Olympics reaching out to me to develop a Unified Program. It was like the stars aligned and it just came together,” Ms. Lange said. “We did it as a pilot program last spring in 2019 and it was a huge success with all students.”
“It changed my life by helping me learn to swim. I couldn’t swim at first but now I can.” – Beloit Memorial senior, Miracle Pritchard
The pilot Unified Swim program was so successful that it has quickly become a bit of an institution at the school. This year there were three terms of the program, with 65-70 lifeguard students getting opportunities to work with Ms. Lange’s students in the water.
Senior Miracle Pritchard is one of Ms. Lange’s students who has come a long way thanks to the class. “It changed my life by helping me learn to swim,” Pritchard said. “I couldn’t swim at first but now I can.”
Pritchard’s classmate Jakob Gosa started with very little swimming ability. In fact, the junior was a little fearful of the water after a scary water incident in the Wisconsin Dells a couple years ago.
But now, he’s comfortable in the water and proud of his progress. “I can swim back and forth and make big waves with my hands and I can make bubbles,” Gosa said.
Pritchard and Gosa have been able to make this progress thanks to lifeguard students like sophomores Eli Miller and Andrew Kleinschmidt.
“It’s been fun seeing how happy they are to learn how to swim,” Miller said.
“I’ve been a swimmer my whole life so it’s a cool feeling to teach kids who didn’t know how to swim or were scared of the water,” Kleinschmidt said. “It’s fun to get them in my element.”
As is the case with Special Olympics sports participation more generally, the swim class has made a larger impact on the lives of the students outside of the activity.
“We take the good sportsmanship manners to heart, and they apply in all aspects of our lives.” – Beloit Memorial special education teacher, Lori Lange
“Teachers in the ID department noticed a reduction in unwanted behaviors. Students looked forward to these lessons, which meant they had to behave and work hard in class to earn the ability to swim,” Ms. Lange said. “We take the good sportsmanship manners to heart, and they apply in all aspects of our lives.”
Special Olympics athlete Kirstin Foulker of Greater Beloit Special Olympics has definitely looked forward to the class. She has used it to be safer around water, but also to help her add a new sport to her Special Olympics resume. In addition to basketball, athletics and bocce, Foulker will add swimming when she participates in her first Special Olympics swim meet on April 25 this year.
“I’m kind of scared because I’m still learning but I think I can do it,” Foulker said.
Thanks to the Beloit Memorial’s swim program, many students like Foulker are overcoming their fears and learning that they truly can do it.