Darren Hewko has always loved water.
At first it was a dangerous fixation, After all, the number one killer of autistic children like Darren is drowning. Yet now, at 17, swimming is Darren’s sport and passion, a portal into a different world.
As a member of the Yale Secondary swim team, Darren is required to attend two practices a week at the ARC, but he actually swims on his own every day after school, splitting his 20 lap regimen between backstroke and freestyle. His mother, Shirley, watches from the side, continually encouraged by how far her son has progressed.
Swimming presents a number of challenges to an autistic individual, not the least of which is the chaos of the average community pool. According to Shirley, Darren not only presents as deaf and mute, but his sensitivity to light and sound is 10 to 100 times higher than average. He has worked hard to become comfortable at the ARC.
“When he was in kindergarten he couldn’t even go into a gym because of the sounds and the echoing,” says Shirley, who compared that memory to a competition last year at the Surrey Sports Centre in which Darren swam in front of 500 people. She remembers the moment Darren realized he was being watched, a few strokes into the race, knowing that he doesn’t like to perform in front of others
“I thought, ‘Oh no, this is 50-50 whether he’s going to keep swimming or just go back to the block and the competition’s done for him.’”
Darren kept going, and by his last lap the entire building was cheering him on. For both Shirley and Darren it was a beautiful moment, the culmination of years of lessons and practice.
Darren didn’t win the race. He never wins his races. He doesn’t have a sense of competition, and simply swims because he loves the sport, and he loves being part of a team.
“It lets him have a sense of belonging and being,” says Shirley. “Most autistic people want to be left alone and not be in crowds, but my son prefers to be with people.”
Darren doesn’t have the build of a conventional swimmer. At 6’2” and 290 pounds, he would make an ideal linebacker, and it’s difficult to find clothes or swim jammers that fit his frame. Still, he is a master at treading water, and even his race times have improve dramatically over the last few years under coach Christine Ross.
There is a category for high school swimmers with disabilities in B.C., although Shirley says that very few parents seem to know it exists. Most of the time, Darren competes outside his category, although last year at provincials in Richmond he swam his first race against other disabled swimmers.
Darren improved upon his time by 27 seconds in that race, a 100-metre freestyle event. According to Shirley, he improves his time in almost every race, although the increments aren’t usually as drastic.
“He’s improving on his personal best every time he’s out there,” she says. “You should see the look on his face, he loves the atmosphere, which is something, 10 years ago, you could not have convinced me of because of the noise and crowds.”
This weekend Darren is competing at the B.C. provincials at the Watermania Aquatic Centre in Richmond. He will race in the 50-metre freestyle, the 100-metre freestyle, and the 50-metre backstroke.
Like always, Shirley will be there taking photos and cheering on her son and his love of water.