By Colin Flanders
A large group of college students waited not-so-quietly in the St. Michael's College athletic building lobby last Friday. They were there to punctuate another week of classes with a trip to the pool – a frequent occurrence as members of the swim and dive team – but first, they had to meet their newest teammate.
Such an energetic group could be intimidating to even the most seasoned high school swimmer, so head coach Eileen Hall gently asked her welcoming committee to keep that in mind. Introducing her recruit a few minutes later, however, Hall found she had little to fear.
"We are here," she said, "because we are welcoming –"
"Me!" yelled Delaney Johnson, a 9-year-old Essex Jct. native, to the delight of the crowd. And with that, the SMC swim and dive team had welcomed its youngest member in college history.
The signing was the latest iteration of a partnership between SMC and Team Impact, a Boston based non-profit that connects children facing serious and chronic illnesses with local college athletic teams. Since 2011, Team IMPACT has matched nearly 1,600 children with more than 500 colleges and universities in 48 states, reaching more than 50,000 student-athletes.
During her ceremony, Delaney penned a letter of intent and patiently posed for pictures with family and her new teammates. Then, she and her two younger sisters, Mara and Nina, hit the pool, and the college students struggled to keep up.
Delaney was diagnosed with alternating hemiplegia of childhood, or AHC, at 10 months old and has battled the condition nearly all her life. Children with AHC experience a range of paralysis, from acute numbness in an extremity to full loss of feeling and movement. The attacks can last anywhere between minutes to days.
The team first met Delaney last month during the fifth-annual Del's Ride, a mountain bike and trail run started by Delaney's parents to raise money for AHC research. The fundraiser has brought in over $92,000 in the last five years.
"One of the things we really strive for as a family is building a sense of community for Del," said Ben Johnson, Delaney's father. "This is just another way for Del to feel that sense of belonging and feel there's places to be where people really love and respect her."
Delaney will join the team at practices, meets and other events. Her family will stay in contact with the team through two student advocates: senior captain Patty Kohn and junior Sarah White. Though their relationship is just beginning, coach Hall said her team has already learned a lot from Delaney.
"I don't think anything can prepare kids who have grown up normally abled to understand what you have to do on a day to day basis if you have a physical or a mental disability," Hall said. "It's great for them to understand that swim practice isn't really all that hard, when you look at what Delaney has to do."
Delaney's affinity for the water was quite evident last Friday as she made quick work of a few laps down the length of the pool. She then braved a jump from one of the starting blocks. According to her mother, Delaney's twice-weekly swim sessions at school are what her daughter looks forward to most.
That's a feeling her new teammates surely understand.
"She's just a kid that loves to swim, and we're just a bunch of kids that love to swim," Kohn said. "It was a really good match."