Swimmer raises thousands for Special Olympics Missouri team

Saturday, May 31, 2014 | 10:24 p.m. CDT; updated 12:21 a.m. CDT, Sunday, June 1, 2014

COLUMBIA — Elizabeth "Libby" Waddell knows how to dive into her supporters' pocketbooks.

Libby, a 27-year-old swimmer with Down syndrome, was the top fundraiser for Team Missouri, the state's Special Olympics team.

With the help of family and supporters, she raised $4,090, more than double the required amount. Team Missouri will compete in the Special Olympics National USA Games in New Jersey on June 14-21.

Libby works at Mercy Hospital St. Louis, and her co-workers were her biggest supporters for the fundraiser. Last Christmas, the radio station at the hospital put together a fundraiser and raised more than $2,000.

Libby's mother said people support her because she inspires them.

"The goal is to do it," her mom, Cathy Waddell, said of Libby's competing. "So many people do not begin to utilize their capabilities."

Libby is not one of those people, and people are quick to recognize her efforts. When her mother posted on Facebook about the Team Missouri fundraiser, the money started flowing in.

She received donations from the Community Fire Protection District in St. Louis County where her father, Jay Waddell, works. His co-workers started as individual supporters, but the donations evolved into a department collection of at least $1,000. Waddell’s brother-in-law, a firefighter and a paramedic, raised nearly $1,000 from his job at the St. Charles Fire Department.

Before heading to the USA Games, Team Missouri is competing in the Missouri State Summer Games this weekend. Saturday, Libby left the regional meet with four medals. She won gold in the 200-meter freestyle and the 200-meter freestyle relay events, and she took silver in the 100-meter backstroke and 100-meter individual medley events.

Libby's parents said they enjoy the sense of "pride and accomplishment" swimming gives her, and she enjoys their enthusiasm.

"My parents are proud of me," she said as her parents waved their “Go Libby” signs at the MU Student Recreation Center.

Libby, a native of St. Louis, is one of the six swimmers on the state aquatic team, which was selected in June 2013. Team Missouri features several sports and 125 delegates, including the state's best players, coaches and unified partners, who help players with disabilities.

Because the players are from different parts of the state, they can only practice together once a month. They competed as a team for the first time at the State Summer Games.

“We are doing great,” said Amy Wurst, the head aquatic coach for Team Missouri. “I have been watching the times, and everyone has improved their time since last practice, which was a month ago.”

As Libby swims, her father's powerful voice pounds through the arena. He constantly reminds her to kick and flip, coaching her through the lanes from the stands.

"It's an individual sport for the most part, but they bond as a team," her dad said.

He said spending 10 years with the Special Olympics has allowed his family to connect with different families locally and around the nation.

"They put forth their best effort," he said, "whether, they win first, second or third place, they all win."

This story was written by one of 11 students participating in the Sports Journalism Institute, hosted by MU. This is the 22nd class for the Institute, designed to provide minority and female students with a start in the sports journalism industry. This is SJI's third year at Missouri.

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