Visually impaired twins compete in Special Olympics swimming

Saturday, June 1, 2013 | 9:38 p.m. CDT
Ethan Baldwin waits to start the 800-meter race in the Missouri State Special Olympics aquatic events Saturday, at the MU Recreation Center. Ethan and his twin brother, Nathan, have a condition called retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that causes severe impairment and eventual blindness.

COLUMBIA — Scott Baldwin sat calmly at the end of the lap pool, his knees folded and hands crossed in his lap.

In front of him, his son, Ethan, was swimming the 800-meter freestyle in Saturday’s Special Olympics Missouri State Summer Games at the MU Student Recreation Complex.

Scott Baldwin didn’t move when Ethan started to drift to one side of the lane, colliding with the divider. But if his son got too close to one side of the wall before stopping, Scott Baldwin would gently call out to Ethan that he was approaching it.

Ethan and his twin, Nathan, have learning disabilities and are visually impaired from retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative condition that could eventually make them blind.

Scott Baldwin has vowed not to shelter his 19-year-old sons from Blue Springs because he has seen them overcome more.

“We were told when the boys were in the womb to consider abortion,” Scott Baldwin said. “Now they’re swimmers.”

When Scott and Cherri Baldwin were expecting Ethan and Nathan, they said doctors told them the twins might not survive the pregnancy, and if they did, there would be complications. But Scott Baldwin said the two decided against terminating the pregnancy.

When the twins were born, they had six fingers on each hand. Nathan needed a kidney transplant at 4, so Scott Baldwin gave one of his. But nearly a year later, he said the kidney had to be taken out because of a complication. Nathan went on a transplant list and received another kidney when he was 9. Ethan went through a kidney transplant at 14. Scott Baldwin said Nathan has had 22 operations.

Ethan and Nathan’s vision began deteriorating when they were 10. They said they have tunnel vision, lacking peripheral vision and depth perception. At night, it’s as if they’re blind.

“It’s going to get worse,” Ethan said.

“We’re just dealing with it and just doing what’s normal,” Nathan said.

Although they have participated in other Special Olympics sports, such as flag football, bowling and track and field, as the twins’ vision continues to deteriorate, they won’t be able to continue competing in those sports. But with swimming, a sport where everyone’s vision is somewhat impaired in the water, Ethan and Nathan will be able compete as long as they want.

“I just feel like if you treat them normal, they’re going to be normal,” Cherri Baldwin said. “If you treat them sickly, they’re going to be sickly.”

Ethan and Nathan swam in six events Friday: the 800-meter freestyle, 50-meter backstroke, 100-meter individual medley, 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle and the 4x50-meter relay. 

The twins said they can’t swim in lanes where there’s a ladder to avoid accidentally swimming into it, and they have to use clear goggles so they’re able to see the black line at the bottom of the pool. They also have tried to count how many strokes it takes them to get to the wall, so they can avoid colliding with it.

Whenever Ethan would get close to the wall, Scott Baldwin would shift from his still position to tell his son something as he turned to swim back to the other side of the pool.

“Keep going,” Scott Baldwin yelled to him. “Don’t stop and just keep swimming.”

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