A world championship competition brings to mind thoughts of medals and podiums, winners and losers. For Luke Drumright, a local swimmer who recently competed at the Down Syndrome World Swimming Championships, it’s about people. When asked about his favorite part of the competition, he replied, “It was really fun. My favorite part was making new friends.”
“I made a lot of friends…” he says with a smirk.
We laughed. Joined by his mother, Susan, at a local restaurant we sat down to discuss Luke’s experience swimming for Team USA at the event before they had to hustle Luke off to his job at Cottage Creamery in Midland.
Luke started swimming at the age of eight because the family had the goal of keeping Luke safe while in water and also the possibly of playing a high school sport.
Luke Drumright at Plymouth Pool, one of his home training facilities in Midland.
Susan spoke about the fact that oftentimes parents with children with Down Syndrome or another disability might be wary about getting them into sports, but the process has been rewarding for Luke and the family. “Try everything! Midland has so many opportunities. He played tennis at the Tennis Center. He tried hockey, he tried all kinds of things. Our doctor told us, ‘Find something that he’s good at and stick with that.’ So he tried lots of things, and swimming is what stuck,” says Susan Drumright.
“Then, once you find something, dream big...don’t be afraid.”
Luke had the same advice when asked what he thinks life would be like if he hadn’t discovered a love for swimming.
“I would probably try to find a sport that I’m good at. Try to do what’s best for you, try to do what makes you happy,” he said.
Swimming made Luke happy, so when he turned 11, Susan and Ray, Luke’s father, asked him if he wanted to started swimming competitively.
Drumright's two medals from the championships in Nova Scotia.
“When I first started swimming, I had to learn kicking in the water and how to do the strokes, then I started doing the Special Olympics,” says Luke.
Susan reinforced that from Luke starting at the Midland Dolphins, into the Special Olympics, and now appearing at the World Championship, the whole journey has been a community effort.
Drumright and Buffy Hall, his long time coach in Midland.
“He would not be here without his community, his coaches including Buffy Hall and the teammates who have encouraged him along the way. There have been many, many individuals who have helped him out, and not just with swimming technique. Learning how to read a heat sheet, put on a cap. It’s pretty incredible. Midland has been an incredible supporter of Luke.”
We talked about all the friends and coaches he has supporting him, coaching train, and cheering him on. Asked about having all those people helping him makes him feel, Luke added, “it makes me feel happy.”
Team USA in Nova Scotia where they met other teams from around the world.
An International Competition
The championships started through the realization that at disabled events, swimmers with Down Syndrome were being outclassed in competition by other athletes with learning disabilities who did not have the same physical disabilities that are often associated with Down Syndrome. For this reason the Down Syndrome International Swimming Organization (DSISO) was created and holds the World Championships every two years.
Drumright during one of his races in Nova Scotia in July with Team USA coach Helmut Levy.
Held in Truro, Nova Scotia, this was the 9th year for the Down Syndrome World Championship, and each year the field of athletes becomes more competitive. At this year’s event, 24 world records were broken in between two different divisions, with a record number of athletes entering the competition.
“There were 200 athletes there and I made friends from the USA Swim Team. They’re from different places. Texas, Miami, Maryland. We had a lot of fun swimming together,” says Luke.
“The USA coach was nice. We learned how to get along with one another, and to have conversations with people.”
Drumright and some of his new friends and other members of Team USA.
Susan said the focus on people and relationships is common within the Special Olympics and similar events.
“There is an element that is much more about the encouragement of others. They are happy for you if you do well. One of the things they really stress is the independence of the athletes.”
“It’s not about stress. It’s about taking time. It’s about trying to show what hope can be. Hope is what we believe in,” Luke adds.
But while the event stressed friendship, building relationships, encouragement, and hope, it still was a competitive international championship.
“This was a high level competition. It was strictly for people with Down Syndrome, but it was a world-class level event,” says Susan.
Drumright in the heat of a race in Nova Scotia.
One of the reasons for that is that other countries - Australia, Great Britain, Brazil among others - have had more government help and organization compared to the U.S. Many countries have developmental programs, so that’s something we’re looking into - how to help new kids coming in and how to get them stronger.”
Luke commented on the hard work he has put in to become a successful swimmer and athlete.
“I don’t really give up in swimming. I know it can be tiring, but I just have to try to show pride and try to show faith. Swimming is about trying to work hard, to believe that we can do this,” he said.
Luke trained hard for the event, swimming four or five times a week with the Dolphins for 3,000 to 4,000 yards each practice. In addition, he would lift weights two to three times a week.
Susan said that watching the competition showed what is possible for people with Down Syndrome and importance of having high expectations.
“What I saw at the event was very high level and people believing in athletes who have Down Syndrome and other disabilities, and I think that’s something parents can hold onto,” says Susan.
“Because if you go in assuming that they’re a good enough swimmer for someone with Down Syndrome – that’s a very different approach than teaching them the right way to do the strokes and assume they can do it right. You have to have high expectations.”
Not wanting us to lose sight of what’s important, Luke stepped in to remind us that swimming isn’t all about swimming.
“What mom is saying is all about swimming. It can be, but it has to be about connecting with people. It’s not just about swimming. It’s about connecting with people, trying to get to know them. And if you get to know them, and that person makes you laugh, and you enjoy that person, you might have new friends and things to try.”
Drumright competing in the breaststroke in Nova Scotia.
Along with becoming a world-class swimmer, Luke is succeeding in other areas of his life as well. He is a lifeguard and swim coach, has a job at Cottage Creamery, and graduated from SVSU through Think Cardinal, a new certificate-based program for students with intellectual disabilities. Students need to earn 30 hours of credits to graduate, either through taking classes, working and extracurricular activities.
Luke earned 50.
“He’s had a very full life, but swimming has given him a sense of accomplishment that nothing else has,” Susan says.
Drumright cheering on teammates in Nova Scotia.
Luke offered some final thoughts on the whole experience, adding, “I just want to say that this is a really big honor swimming for the USA Swim Team. I just want people to know that we’re just trying to reach for hope, trying to reach for giving grace and giving what we’re good at.”
It’s easy to see why Drumright has received the support and fanfare for his efforts. The community will continue to cheer you on in all that you do, Luke.