Pushing his goggles snug to his face, Matt Hood looks down the lane before the 400-meter freestyle. Hood, a 28-year-old Special Olympics Athlete with Down syndrome, has had to overcome a lot to be a competitive swimmer.
Born with a sensory integration issue, he could not stand the feel of water on his skin for many years. His desire to swim helped Hood overcome the problem and he is now a strong swimmer.
When Hood went to an overnight summer camp a few years ago, he protested when the staff asked him to complete a swimming proficiency test. When he returned to the camp the next year and had to take the test again, he swam the four strokes he uses in the individual medley. It was an example of Hood’s perseverance and good humor. Hood seems to always find a way to show his humorous side.
“I can be a funny comedian sometimes,” he said.
Hood’s mother, Glenda Hood says she sees more in her son.
“He strives to do whatever he wants,” she said.
Matt has been competing as a Special Olympics athlete for 20 years. His mom said he has always been aware of his disability, but he wants to be treated like everybody else.
“He was pretty much told all the time what he couldn’t do,” she said, “but Special Olympics focused on what he could do, and that was great.”
Hood also plays soccer, basketball and bocce, an Italian lawn bowling game. He said being an athlete means “competing in all events,” and the many medals hung around his house and piled on his dresser shows he’s been successful in any sport he tries.
One of Hood’s biggest successes came at the 2006 Special Olympics USA National Games in Ames, Iowa. He had never raced more than 100 meters, but swam the 400- and 800-meter freestyle races. One year later, Hood’s family proudly points to the four gold medals from nationals that are framed on the living room wall.
When Hood is not at practice or competing, he often hangs out with friends he met through Special Olympics. Matt “Caseman” Casey, Larry Stephens and Kendyl Schitp spend weekends together at each other’s houses.
“My friends mean a lot to me,” Hood said. “I can compete with my friends, hang out with them and talk to them. We work as a team.”
The group loves to play video games and watch movies together. Each time one of them celebrates a birthday, they will schedule a camping excursion, a casino night or a trip to the drive-in movie theater.
“Friends are like a family too,” Hood said.
When he’s not at a friend’s house, Hood lives at home with his parents. Between Special Olympics practices and his new job at the Town and Country Lanes bowling alley, Hood attends life skills classes that help him learn how to live on his own. His parents do not know what the future holds. Hood says he wants to go to college, be a DJ, and get married.
“We just kind of open the doors, and he does the rest,” Glenda Hood said. “We’ll take it one step at a time and see how far he can go.”
For the moment, Hood will focus his energies on swimming fast at the summer state games in June.
When Hood touches the wall at the end of his 400-meter race, his face is red and he breathes heavily. His training has paid off. He has set a new personal record and earned another gold medal for his collection. Standing on the awards podium, he raises his fist above his head and grins toward the crowd.