For more than 30 years, Gwen Foley has been a friend to swimmers with special needs
Gwen Foley is an unsung hero of THPRD’s Specialized Aquatics program, volunteering her time to teach one-on-one swim lessons each Sunday at the Beaverton Swim Center for more than 30 years.
“Sharron (Patapoff, swim center supervisor) asked me to volunteer when she started the program, and now she can’t get rid of me,” laughs the 81-yearold Foley, a retired flight attendant and nurse.
Foley’s instruction is guided by a simple principle: treat students in Specialized Aquatics the same as everyone else.
“You’re not doing them a favor if you’re telling them it’s great when it isn’t,” she said.
Foley provides tough love, pushing her students, never letting them say “I can’t” and providing praise – but only when it is deserved.
“She’s there to teach them how to swim, not to play with them,” Patapoff said. “She has a tough exterior but great warmth for the program. Her expectations are high, so their expectations are high.”
Foley spends many hours working with special needs populations. She’s a volunteer for Special Olympics and Albertina Kerr, and she is also the founder and manager of a dragon boat team composed of paddlers with special needs.
“One of my swimmers came down to watch me participate in a dragon boat race and asked ‘Couldn’t we do that?’,” Foley explained. “We started with one boat, now we have two. They compete against the general population.”
Foley believes many people are afraid of interacting with specialized populations, but adds that attitudes have changed for the better.
“The high school students (who teach Specialized Aquatics) are so fabulous,” she said. “Generally, people treat people with special needs better than they did when I was growing up, when people made fun of them and didn’t pay attention to them.”
More than a generation of children and adults with special needs have now benefited from the Specialized Aquatics program. Foley has been an indispensable part of that work.
“She is integral to the program and she’s been a long-time friend,” Patapoff said. “I aspire to be her one day. She’s always going. She’s 81 years old and busier than any of us.”