When Sofia Sanchez first came to the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center at 6 years old, she didn’t want to go near the pool.
Diagnosed with autism, Sofia had spatial orientation and sensory processing issues combined with low muscle tone, and her parents were hesitant. “We really thought she might not ever be able to swim, plus she was petrified of the water,” said her mom, Susan Tarka Sanchez.
But under the enthusiastic direction of life guard manager Kandis Pulliam at the center’s warm water therapy pool, Sofia began, little by little, to enjoy the experience. Soon, Pulliam coaxed her over to the Olympic-sized pool, and as soon as Sofia could swim across, convinced her to join the Rays swim team, a competitive and social team for individuals with special needs and developmental disabilities.
Sofia, now 12, swims more than a mile each team practice. Sometimes she uses one arm, sometimes no arms, but it doesn’t matter, not to her and not to anyone else.
“If you can make it across, you’re a swimmer and we’ll take you on the Rays,” said Pulliam, who has built a team of some 50 swimmers spanning all ages. First formed in 2006 with a handful of participants, the Rays team has since flourished into a community of proud swimmers and their families, a close knit group that provides encouragement, friendship and support to all those involved.
Pulliam, who took over as the Rays head coach in 2012, proudly bares a tattoo on her right wrist of the team’s logo — a red heart with a stingray overlapping. It’s an emblem, really, and a proclamation of her love and joy for the program. The team is much more than that, she emphasized — it’s a community. Apart from swim practices up to three times per week, the swimmers and their families attend holiday parties, summer cookouts, overnight camping, dances, movie nights and any “other good excuses we can find” to get together, she said.
“I think a lot of times individuals with special needs and their families, they feel very left out. They feel like they don’t have a community because they’re constantly told what their child won’t be able to do in life, in sports, in school; they get hit with all these terms about developmental delays,” she said. “Well, I wanted a team where that wasn’t the focus. I wanted to build a community where it doesn’t matter what you can’t do, it just matters that you can swim, and where the kids get encouraged because they are swimmers and they’re doing great.”
The Rays is an all-inclusive swim team that meets each individuals’ special needs, provides swim sets and discipline as well as socialization so that children and adults with developmental disabilities — including autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, attention deficit disorder, cerebral palsy, motor planning problems, lack of coordination and other diagnoses — develop their competitive swimming abilities, as well as social and physical health.
Pulliam focuses on team stroke development, endurance, strength, overall health and provides opportunities for competition and team building. The Rays also host special events and competitions against other swim teams for children or adults with special needs at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center.
Alice Choy said her son, Chris, started swimming with Pulliam at the RBAC about 10 years ago and grew leaps and bounds under her direction.
Pulliam, often simply called “Coach,” is the beloved backbone of the team, Choy and other parents said, having not just designed the supportive programming but bringing high energy and a positive attitude to each practice and event.
“Kandis is part of the family; she takes time to love the swimmers and to teach with discipline. She’s not just in charge of the program, but she takes time to participate in important events in life, birthdays, graduation ceremonies. I’ve seen the growth of my son not just in swimming but in his confidence and social skills,” Choy said, adding that as the years pass, the more appreciative she is of Pulliam and the Rays.
Once children with special needs age out of the public school system, she explained, there are fewer extracurricular programs for which they qualify, until ultimately, their world becomes very small.
But the Rays range from 5-56 years old and mentorship between the swimmers of all ages is highly encouraged, she added. Her son, Chris, now 22, enjoys the team more than ever.
“The fact that the team encompasses all ages is very special, and the way Kandis meets every swimmer where they are, takes time to know everyone’s personality and what motivates them is just awesome,” she said.
Team mom Elsa Gutierrez-Aviles, whose 22-year-old daughter, Maya, is a proud Ray, also emphasized the importance of the program for young adults.
“There’s almost nothing out there for adults with special needs when it comes to outdoor, recreational programs. Once they age out of school, there’s not a lot for them,” she said. “I often think, ‘Where would Maya be, if not at the Rose Bowl, with the friends she’s met there?’ She’d be at home alone. She’d feel invisible.”
PANDEMIC TEAM PLANNING
When the world came to a screeching halt nearly a year ago amid the cascading closures enforced to curb the spread of coronavirus, the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center was no different. It closed its doors for three and a half months in accordance with health directives.
During that time, however, Pulliam quickly pivoted the Rays team programming to an online Zoom format. She worried about her swimmers’ mental and physical health during isolation, especially since they were already facing socialization challenges. She didn’t want them to lose their gains or their connections, she said. Just one week after the RBAC closed, she came up with a weeklong Zoom program that incorporated an hour per day of diverse activities, including an interactive cooking show, a virtual travel tour, zoo visits, yoga and meditation, arts and crafts, movie nights and, of course, dance parties.
The Zooms very quickly provided a safe and consistent schedule for the swimmers, and gave the parents and families a much-needed break.
“When the pandemic hit we all were really scared. We wondered, are our kids just going to be locked up now?” recalled Gutierrez-Aviles. “They don’t socialize like other kids, especially in an environment where others are willing to accept them for who they are. These Zooms have been my daughters’ saving grace.”
Now a year into the pandemic, the RBAC has opened to 50% capacity, and Pulliam has gotten her swimmers safely back in the water by following COVID social distancing protocols. But not all swimmers, some of whom are autoimmune compromised or have a family member who is, have been able to return, so Pulliam has continued the Zooms, which continue to garner high interest among her team. They’ve connected the swimmers on another level, she said, and sometimes lead to intimate conversations.
“Our swimmers hear and understand a lot more than people give them credit for, so we’ve had some really heavy talks this past year. Several have lost grandparents and family members to coronavirus, so there have been a lot of talks about dealing with your feelings, with being frustrated, wanting COVID to be over,” Pulliam said. “But the Zooms have become such a big part of everyone’s life… everyone shows up and is happy to be there. Even when we go back 100% I foresee maintaining some of the Zoom sessions.”
Although at first very labor intensive, Pulliam noted, some of the more tech savvy team members have taken over running the Zoom sessions, fielding the comments section and organizing an event, giving another level of mentorship and communication.
RBAC Board Chairman Pat Amsbry praised Pulliam’s quick thinking during the pandemic for moving the Rays’ program online and keeping it dynamic.
“Kandis deserves all the credit for keeping the program fun and fresh, especially during this time. She showed an amazing amount of creativity and energy to get it off the ground in a very short period of time to keep the continuity of the team together,” he said. “We celebrate the work she’s done and are grateful she had the wherewithal to stoke those friendships and connections in an online format.”
Pulliam, who grew up in Hesperia, was an athlete from an early age and always surrounded herself with sports and teams. When she took over as the Rays’ head coach, she fought for uniforms for each athlete, complete with their names and a new logo, the stingray. The parents have team shirts as well, she said, something that helps them stand out and be seen at the RBAC.
“Having a uniform with your name on it gives you a sense of ownership and responsibility,” she said. “In the pool, they get to be someone they can’t be anywhere else: they get to be a kid and they get to be a swimmer, and nothing else matters. They get to earn trophies and ribbons.”
For Amsbry, the Rays represent the core mission of what the RBAC nonprofit organization stands for: providing access and opportunity for individuals of all walks of life. Going into its 31st year, the RBAC wants to create “gold medal moments” for all its members, he added.
“It is such a vital part of our depth and breadth of our programming. It really is transformational. We strive for these gold medal moments, although that might mean something different for everybody. For the Rays, I’ve seen Kandis help the swimmers achieve gold medal moments that are very significant. She is full of passion and has provided unending energy and positive spirit to growing this program.”
Those moments — when a swimmer hits the end of a lane or tries harder than they have before — are just as “golden” for the parents, Pulliam said, and if she’s being honest, for her too.
“I get way more from my swimmers than I could ever give to them,” she said. “The team is my motivator. I just want every single swimmer to have a better life. I want them to have friends and community they don’t get elsewhere. And when they get to be part of the team I want them to feel like rock stars, which they are.”
To learn more about the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center or Rays program, visit rosebowlaquatics.org.