Finding Purpose by the Pool

Sep 28, 2012

Cole HetmanYou never know how experiences will shape your life and career aspirations. For first-year student Cole Hetman, it was his time spent poolside.

Cole was always interested in medicine, but had that “ah-ha” moment one day while life guarding. “A 60-year-old woman had a stroke while in the pool,” he said. “I had to pull her out and resuscitate her with CPR.” The woman was alert when the paramedics arrived and made a full recovery. “That was the moment I knew I could be a doctor,” Cole said.

He had become a life guard at age 16 at his local rec center, and swim coach and safety instructor at 17. His life guarding experience prompted him to join the Volunteer Swim Coach program at his high school in Springboro, OH. The program paired up high schools students with children with special needs in the community. It was known to participants as Swim Buddies.

Cole’s partner was Junior, an eighth grader whose disability impaired his speech. He did not speak. With the communication barrier, Cole had to find other ways to teach Junior. “I used a lot of showing and physically moving his arms to help develop the motor skills,” he said. “It was definitely a struggle at first.”

The program teaches water safety and promotes exercise. “At first, even getting Junior into the water was a struggle,” said Cole. “He refused to get his face wet and would occasionally have panic attacks.” After working with Cole for two years, Junior learned to enjoy his time in the pool and Cole as his partner. For Cole, it was an eye-opening experience. “It was amazing to me the delight you can give them with just your time,” he said. “That’s all they want. Your time.”

Identified through the Volunteer Swim Coach program, Cole was asked to help with a Special Olympics team. He became one of three coaches for the team and the only high school student. “These swimmers were older and wouldn’t take me seriously at first. I had to gain their trust,” he said.

The atmosphere was different from the Swim Buddies program. Swimmers wanted to know their times, were competitive with each other in practice and displayed a real team spirit at the races by cheering for each other. They used blocks, swam all the different strokes and events and were individually timed. “It was interesting to see the scope. You always hear about children with disabilities, but rarely do people talk about adults with disabilities,” Cole said. “Our oldest swimmer was 47.”

Practices led up to the regional finals for southwest Ohio held at Wright State University. Cole’s team was comprised of 20 swimmers and was one of the biggest teams. “It was so amazing to watch,” said Cole. “They never thought to themselves that they couldn’t do it.”

Despite his love of the water, he never joined his high school swim team. “People always ask me about that,” he said. “I love coaching, but for my own exercise I wanted out of the pool.” Cole played tennis and soccer during high school and played in the marching band. He is continuing his love of coaching here at Heidelberg by working at the YMCA in Tiffin.

Clearly the pool has impacted Cole’s life. His career goals of becoming a doctor also include traveling to Third World countries and studying abroad in South America. He knows his time spent with Junior and the Swim Buddies program helped him realize his passion for helping others. And surely the impact that he left on Junior was as great as the impact Junior left on him. “After two years, he could finally say my name. He could say Cole.”