Farmingdale hosts water polo tournament for special needs children

Ryan Odabasi, an alumni of the SPLASH swim

Ryan Odabasi, an alumni of the SPLASH swim program and member of the varsity swim team, gives two thumbs up at a water polo exhibition tournament benefiting a swim instruction program for autistic and special needs children. (Dec. 20, 2013) (Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy)

For 15 years, Farmingdale boys swimming team, in lieu of practice, has hosted a water polo tournament to bring together alumni and current swimmers. Last year, head coach Ken Ilchuk decided that since it brought together so many people, they would start raising money to benefit charities.

In 2012, almost 100 swimmers and visitors, including alumni dating back to the 1970s, visited Farmingdale High School to support No Stomach for Cancer, a cause that was created by one of Farmingdale's former swimmers, Jess Mackenzie.

Mackenzie contracted a rare genetic form of stomach cancer that forced her to have her stomach removed. Last year, the Farmingdale boys swimming team raised over $1,300 for No Stomach for Cancer, who uses the phrase "No Stomach, No Problem."

"We've been doing this for 15 years and last year we decided to turn it into a fundraiser," said head coach Ken Ilchuk, who created the idea of the water polo tournament 15 years ago after his first year of coaching.

"I decided that rather than having a practice before winter break, the kids would enjoy this more," Ilchuk said.

This year's event, which was held on Friday, benefited SPLASH, an instructional swimming program for autistic and special needs children. The program is the only instructional and competitive special needs swim program on Long Island. It was started by Farmingdale swimming alumna Nora Reade.

"In high school I was a special needs kid," said Reade, who suffers from dyslexia. "I just wanted to give back. It's really nice to have started it and I hope these teams pop up all over the island."

Nora stresses the importance of knowing how to swim in an area surrounded by water.

"We live on an island and it's so important to learn how to swim," Reade said. "The sport could save a life."

SPLASH currently has 28 registered special needs swimmers between the ages of 7-18, and they're assisted by 20 volunteers, all Farmingdale High School students. The coaches in SPLASH consist of Farmingdale High School alumni.

"It was great having the alumni there," Reade said. "Everyone had smiles on their faces."

The organization started back in 2009, when Nora and her mother, Barbara, who is currently the program supervisor, decided that the Town of Oyster Bay needed an instructional swim team for children with special needs.

"We're surrounded by bays, oceans and pools," Barbara Reade said. "It's our mission that every child should know how to swim. The program has been inspirational and uplifting."

SPLASH receives support from the Farmingdale Youth Council, Farmingdale High School and Special Ed PTA. SPLASH meets every Saturday at 1 p.m. at Farmingdale High School.

One swimmer stands out in particular in Barbara's mind. Ryan Odabasi, an autistic child who participated in SPLASH for four years, is now a swimmer on Farmingdale's High School varsity squad. When asked how Barbara felt when she saw Ryan participating with other special needs children at the fundraiser, she responded quickly.

Said Barbara Reade: "I was moved to say the least. It was amazing."

On Friday, over 100 people showed up for the event, including 45 alumni. They sold t-shirts and raised money for SPLASH, while hosting the water polo tournament.

"It's great to see everybody and everybody is so supportive of the program," Ilchuk said. "I like the fact that alumni come back and can join in the event with the current kids."

Ilchuk hopes to raise close to $1,500 this year towards SPLASH, and he sees no end in sight for this tradition.

"It's a great event," Ilchuk said. "It's one of the really positive things we get to do with our team."

SPLASH hopes that other school districts will follow in her organization's lead and create more instructional and competitive swimming programs for special needs children on Long Island.

"It's more than swimming," Barbara said. "This is about skill-building, friendship-making and life-changing."

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