When Emory Russell was 5, she accompanied her two older sisters to the Pecos Community Center Pool for summer fun, eventually joining them in swim competitions.
For her, at her age group, it was the Pecos Pirates swim team.
Little did her parents Kevin Russell and Cheryl Ross foresee that initial splashing would eventually propel their youngest to the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
The week-long competitions begin March 14, and 19-year-old Emory and her parents are readying for an “adventure of a lifetime.”
She is the only Arizona athlete attending the International Special Olympics, and there she’ll join the other 23 swimmers from throughout the U.S. competing in various sports at the prestigious games.
Getting to that rarified level has taken a lot of training, and swimming at innumerable state and national competitions.
Her most recent competition was the Special Olympics Arizona 2018 Swimming Championships, a part of the Special Olympics Fall Classic.
She won gold medals in relay and breast stroke, and silver in freestyle in the stand-alone event at the Southwest Valley YMCA in Goodyear.
This past year has been an excellent one for the 4’10” teen.
Emory took home two gold medals and a silver at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games held in Seattle in July.
She was one of only six Arizona swimmers among the more than 4,000 athletes and coaches representing programs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
She earned her gold medals in the 50-meter breaststroke, her specialty and 25X4 relay, in which she swam the breaststroke leg. Her participation in the 50-meter freestyle earned her a silver medal and yet another opportunity to be honored on the winners’ podium.
At the September Regional Swim Meet at Mesa’s Skyline High School, she did it again, winning gold in the 50-meter and her portion of the 50x4 relay and earning another silver in the 50-meter freestyle.
Not satisfied to rest on her laurels – and there are many – Russell flew to Delaware in mid-September to begin training for the International Special Olympics.
She admits it was a grueling four days but added that it was worth it as she kept her one goal in mind.
“I had a great time in Delaware. I got to meet my USA swim team and coach. Yes, we swam two miles in one day, but it’s worth it for the gold in the world competition,” said Russell. “I’m looking forward to Abu Dhabi. I’m going to bring the gold home for USA.”
One of Emory’s biggest fans – besides her mother and dad and older sisters Chase and Taylor – is her coach Elyse Rightmer, one of the several area coaches who’ve trained her over the years at the City of Tempe Special Olympics.
“It’s been such a surreal experience to see one of my own start out at the regional and state level and advance all the way to the world level. I have no other words to describe my feelings, other than elated and proud,” said Rightmer, who has a younger sister with special needs.
“I know Emory has worked immensely hard and will be a great representative of our great state and country,” she added.
Emory was in middle school when she and Rightmer met poolside.
She recalled that the 13-year-old was at first hesitant to join the swim team, but friends also involved in Special Olympic sports encouraged her to give it a try.
“Emory was a natural breaststroker right from the start. Despite her hesitation, she was quick to learn and wonderful student. She immediately began to see the fruits of her labor that very first season when she was winning medals at the area competition and the state competition,” said Rightmer, adding:
“I was so proud when I received the list of athletes chosen for the 2018 National Games in Seattle and saw two of my girls would be competing at the national level. I was even more shocked when I, as a coach, received a letter stating I was one of two coaches chosen to coach all six national games athletes, not just my two from the City of Tempe.”
Rightmer said the year leading to Seattle was “challenging for everyone involved” with two-hour practices held three times weekly, even in December and January.
Rightmer has been a Special Olympics swim coach with the City of Tempe for 14 years.
The Chandler resident is an R.N. and has volunteered as coach not only with the swim team, but track and field, and cheer.
She said, “Playing the role of coach is the most rewarding hobby I think I’ve ever had.”
And her athletes have taught her “the values of patience, determination and, most of all, what it means to live life to the fullest.”
Rightmer was celebrating the Seattle National Games victory with her swimmers and parents when Cheryl Ross got the surprise call from the Special Olympics.
“The moment we heard that Emory was selected to represent Arizona and the United States in the World Games in Abu Dhabi, I cried,” Rightmer said.
“We knew Arizona got to send one female swimmer to World Games, we just didn’t know who it was going to be when we returned home from Seattle,” she continued. “I was so proud to announce to everyone that Emory was going to represent Team Arizona.”
Rightmer, Tempe coach Roger Sample, Gilbert coach Jonah Phung and Amy Garinger continue to work with the young athlete weekly at the Kiwanis Recreation Center Pool, though she has another coach traveling with her in March.
Kevin and Cheryl Ross are also accompanying their youngest daughter.
“Emory has always excelled in swimming, which has made all of this enjoyable for her,” said Cheryl Ross. “With special needs kids, it’s always nice to find something they do well that gives them a sense of accomplishment and normalcy.”
The couple praise Arizona’s Developmental Disabilities Division as being instrumental to their daughter’s success in life.
Offering services such as speech therapy and vocational rehabilitation, the DDD has assisted Emory communicate her thoughts more effectively and prepare for future employment.
She is currently volunteering at Desert Vista High School in the daycare facility where she interned during her certification program at East Valley Institute of Technology.
“Emory has worked with truly caring professionals that have improved her life and increased her confidence not only in herself but in how she deals with others. Emory’s older sisters, Chase and Taylor, have been extremely helpful in encouraging Emory to becoming who she is today, and because of Emory she may have influenced their decisions to becoming health care professionals themselves,” said Kevin Russell.
Both vividly remember the diagnosis given before Emory was born and the years of challenge that followed.
“When Emory was first diagnosed with her disabilities, we knew that we would be challenged individually and as a family,” her father said, recalling:
“There were tears of sadness when she was treated badly by classmates and other children her age because she was different, and special memories of the classmates who treated her as a friend.
“There were tears of joy when she had Gold medals placed around her neck at the US National Special Olympics in Seattle this year and at many other swim events over the years. To say that I am proud of her is an understatement. She is an incredible athlete, an incredible person and an incredible daughter.”
Cheryl Ross said the experience of these swimming successes has helped her daughter grow in confidence.
“It’s hard enough for special needs people, and this experience of swimming with her friends, competing with others and now, winning regularly. It just gives her such positive energy. And watching all the swimmers competing in Seattle was so amazing. They’re all so happy.”
Special Olympics Arizona has set up a fundraiser page for Russell and the Arizona Unified Basketball Team to help defray some of the International Special Olympics Abu Dhabi trip costs.
Russell is halfway to her goal, but obviously more is needed. Donations can be made at classy.org/fundraiser/1562355.