Sara Kigin, 32, has loved the water all her life. Her mom, Marie Kigin, introduced her to swimming as an infant, enrolling her in the St. Cloud YMCA’s “Diaper Dippers” club.
“I was a fish,” Sara said with a smile and a laugh.
“She was real acclimated to the water,” Marie agreed. “I knew she needed to learn how to swim since we spent a lot of time at the lake. She really did take to it like a fish.”
Sara, a member of the Granite City Rocks team in St. Cloud, not only had an affinity and talent for swimming but also for a variety of sports including softball, track, floor hockey and bowling. She also is part of Minnesota Wild Special Hockey — an adapted ice hockey program for players of all ages with developmental disabilities.
Born with Down syndrome, Sara was already competing in the Special Olympics by the time she was 8 years old. This year she is one of four women and four men who will represent Team Minnesota in the swimming competition at the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle July 1-6.
She will participate in the 100-meter freestyle, 200-meter freestyle and 400-meter freestyle as well as a 4×25 relay.
During an interview with The Visitor, Sara shyly hid her face and admitted that she’s a little nervous — mostly because of how big the pool will be.
“It’s an Olympic-sized pool,” Marie said.
One thing Sara said she is not afraid of is flying. “I love airplanes,” she said.
She’s been to Seattle before. A couple of years ago, Marie and Sara participated in Big Climb Seattle — a fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
“Sara is a cancer survivor,” Marie explained. “She started chemo when she was 14 months old and finished just before she turned 2 years old. She’s a success story because she wasn’t supposed to survive. She gets to keep enjoying life.”
Brave in the attempt
The Special Olympics athlete’s oath, which was first introduced by Eunice Kennedy Shriver at the inaugural Special Olympics international games in Chicago in 1968, is “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
And that is an important message that Joyce Simones, one of Sara’s coaches, reinforces with all the athletes she coaches through the Granite City Rocks team.
“Our team is very excited for Sara to compete at the national level,” Simones said. “Sara is dedicated. She puts all her effort into swimming. She is easily coached, listens to what you say, sets her goals and works really hard to achieve them.”
Simones, who has been coaching athletes for 15 years, said that Sara is “very supportive of her teammates.”
A lot of effort goes into training the athletes, but Simones said there is much more to it. Her own daughter has competed on an international level with Special Olympics.
“The value having a team like this brings to the community is that people with disabilities have goals and skills just like everyone else. Special Olympics helps them develop those gifts,” she said. “They really work on leadership development for their athletes. It’s not just sports, it’s not just winning. It is developing each individual’s potential.”
The Kigins attend St. Mary’s Cathedral in St. Cloud. When their pastor, Father Scott Pogatchnik, learned Sara would be competing nationally, he offered to give her a blessing before Mass June 24. Sara was moved to tears at the outpouring of support from the community.
“The church has been really important to our family,” Marie said. “I was born and raised at the cathedral, Sara was baptized and received her first Communion and confirmation there. When she was sick, people were praying for her. We have a real connection with the church. It is our family. We are excited to share this with them. The more that know and want to pray to make it a great, safe, successful trip, the better.”
And Marie said, Sara doesn’t measure success by the medals that come home, but by the amount of fun she has had, the memories made and the people she has met.
“That’s what it’s about for us — doing your best and having fun,” Marie said. “If you get a medal, that’s third on the list.”
Sara developed her skills over the years, starting out in the YMCA’s Diaper Dippers club. (Photos courtesy of Marie Kigin)