By Jamila Cross, email@example.com
I am attributing my months of sabbatical from this column to a combination of inertia, Covid fatigue and the illusion of work-life balance.
It has taken me almost seven months to craft this story about an extraordinary young swimmer Jaleel Pierre, who deserves my unreserved debt of gratitude. It would also be remiss of me not to acknowledge Jillian Pierre, a mother whose courage and commitment lends itself far beyond her role as Board member and Head of Families at Special Olympics Trinidad and Tobago.
Without her guidance and authenticity, this story, and the three-part series I have undertaken featuring coaches and athletes involved in Special Olympics would never have been possible.
At age 24, Jaleel Pierre is competitive, focused and driven. He is a national swimmer and represented this country at the 2015 and 2019 World Special Olympic Games. All things being equal, he will also be competing in national colours in the 2023 World Special Olympic Games in Germany.
Some of his achievements include winning a silver medal in the 25m freestyle in 2015, gold — 25m butterfly, and silver medals — 50m freestyle and 4 x 25 relay in 2019.
His journey has been a remarkable combination of talent identification, a support system of coaches, friends and family, and a definiteness of purpose to achieve his dreams.
At age five, during a family vacation in the US, Jaleel contracted the flu, and a series of tests later confirmed his autism diagnosis. At the time of his diagnosis, he was enrolled in primary school, and it was suggested that he start swimming as part of his therapy.
Swimming coach Edwin Arneaud (deceased) immediately identified Jaleel as a natural swimmer. Encouraged by this, his mother began to observe changes in his behaviour, greater focus, and calm among other things and this early introduction to the sport would redound greatly in years to come.
At age ten, Jaleel went on his first National Special Olympic swimming trial. Although he was not initially successful, coaches Stephen and Monique Telfer, experienced Special Olympic coaches, contributed significantly to his early development and he did not give up. He subsequently made the national team and the rest as they say is success.
Jaleel comes from a supportive family, dad John, sister Jenai and his mother Jillian, who describes her son as a quiet young man. He also has his extended family, the ‘Trinity Masters’ for his pool and open water swims.
He knows that he has among these masters, mentors, and avid supporters who contribute to his holistic growth and development. “Swimming has developed my confidence, and the masters have nurtured me (Louis, Wendy, Patrick, William, Gordon), I never feel different, but as one of the masters!”
Patrick Lee Loy is one such master who was first introduced to Jaleel by Lystra Joseph. He began coaching other Special Olympic athletes including Jaleel and Trent Bethel. While Patrick coaches swimmers of different ages and abilities, he notes that the programme for Special Olympics athletes integrates them into regular group swimming whether in the pool or open water. Patrick has developed a close bond with Jaleel, and notes that his top priority is understanding each athlete’s ability and competitive mentality.
As an advocate and Head of Families at Special Olympics, Jillian ensures that I have a clear understanding of the difference between Paralympics and Special Olympics which can sometimes be a source of confusion.
Paralympics caters for athletes who have a missing limb, while Special Olympics is geared towards athletes with a mental disability, for example, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), Down syndrome, autism, Asperger syndrome. She alludes that an early diagnosis allowed her son to have more opportunities.
Jillian believes in the importance of developing an ecosystem of clubs and coaches accepting special athletes and having the capacity and patience to support them. She sees acceptance as key, and that we see special needs children as human beings, who are committed and disciplined in their pursuit of excellence.
Jillian recommends where possible that parents should seek out opportunities to integrate children and ensure there is a balance with education and sport.
She notes, “parents play an important role in educating others who do not understand our children’s needs. We must advocate for them, and not keep them in a proverbial bubble.”
When I ask about his favourite swimmer, Jaleel beams with delight – US Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, of course.
As we conclude, he reveals with a smile that it is his family’s love and support which sustains him. In the near future, Jaleel wants to accomplish his goal of becoming an office admin assistant, and he would love to keep swimming and competing in mainstream events, even coaching other athletes.
For more information on Special Olympics in Trinidad and Tobago you can contact Jillian Pierre at 764-4985 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Jamila Cross played professionally for Sevilla FC women’s Club in Spain (2005). She is the mother of three boys Tishad, Akim and Santiago and a passionate advocate for access to sport and education as powerful tools for youth empowerment. Her life mission is to travel the globe building deeply connected human and spiritual experiences through a life of love, service, gratitude, and trust.