"They need me. I have a good heart."
Boy Swimming Butterfly at Swim Tournament
Credit: Liliboas/Getty Images

Bettye Chady wasn't expecting much when she asked the athletic director at Waggener High School in Louisville, Kentucky, if her son Jackson could try out for the athletics program two years ago.

But the answer she got surprised her, reports The Courier-Journal. Jackson, who has Down syndrome, would be more than welcome to represent the Wildcats.

Two years ago, Jackson (who is now 18) was the only member of the Waggener High School swim team. Now the team is 10 strong, and includes two other students with Down syndrome: Aaron Coomes, 15, and Jake Manning, 16. For those of you keeping score, that means an incredible 30% of the Waggener High School swim team team has special needs.

"It didn't enter our mind that it'd be possible," Terri Manning, Jake's mother, tells The Courier-Journal. "Once we saw how flexible and welcoming Waggener was to kids with special needs, it worked out."

Until recently, Waggener swim coach Jeanene Clark, didn't have any experience with special needs kids, but she says she's happy to teach any student who's willing to try.

"My only requirement is they have to know how to swim," Clark jokes. "All I ask is that they try. That's all I need."

Swimming has had a profound impact on all three boys, and their mainstream teammates have benefitted from competing alongside Jackson and his friends as well—even though they're not the fastest swimmers in the pool.

"At a meet, another coach came up to me and said, ‘Jackson is the happiest swimmer I've ever seen,'" Bill Chady, Jackson's father, tells The Courier-Journal. "He'll be swimming and then stop and look up and wave and wait for his friends."

For Jackson, Aaron, and Jake, being a Wildcat has been the experience of a lifetime, and the confidence they've gained from being a part of a team is apparent. "Everyone has special needs, as in different abilities and disabilities," Bettye Chady explains. "The stars get all that attention, but I'm willing to bet that for some of those bench-sitters that's the best four years of their life, too. It's not just the starters who benefit from being part of a team."

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Jackson's favorite part of being on the team? "They need me," he tells The Courier-Journal. "I have a good heart."