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  • Writer's pictureSarah Zucca MS, LPC, CADC

Inside Looking Out

Throughout my journey as a mother, I have always thought about how swimming prepared me for so much more than how to be an athlete. I remember being pregnant and thinking how swimming primed my body and mind to bring a tiny human into the world; because, let’s face it, pregnancy and labor are just as hard as any athletic accomplishment, if not harder. During the early days, with no sleep and nursing around the clock, this was easy to see how swimming prepared me. No sleep, awake at 4:00am, constant demands on my body, and determination to make my goal of nursing past a year. But what I could never imagine in my early 20s, was how swimming would prepare me to be a Special Needs mom.



Five years into our journey, I often think fondly of the four years of swimming for Penn State. Now, on my early morning runs and workouts, which are my outlet and quiet time to re-set, I think about all I have learned from my time at Penn State, my teammates, and my coaches. I remember our coach, Bill, telling us that swimming would prepare us for

situations throughout our life. At the time, I never realized how true this was going to be.


Not many people can say they swam at a Division 1 school. I am sure those of us who made it to that level have taken every lesson learned during those four years and applied them to life not only to better ourselves, but any situation we encountered. Bill’s motto was “leave the situation better than you found it.” I whole heartedly believe in this motto and try to pay it forward every opportunity I find. We have been blessed to have worked with amazing providers, and whenever I learn a treatment approach or skill set for AZ, I am not only thinking about him, but also how we can make schools and our community a better place for other children with Autism.


If you ask any employer why they never question hiring a student athlete, it is because they will tell you their work ethic, organizational, and time management skills are impeccable. You cannot excel at being a student-athlete without having these skills. You leave classes for days or a week at a time and must coordinate missed work. You need to juggle 30 hours of a sport while also completing and excelling in the classroom. No one is there telling you to get the work done, you need to have internal motivation to complete it. Having a son with Autism requires more organization than I could possibly write about. I coordinate not only his services, his education, his social interactions, but also his medical care, balance of pushing him and giving him breaks, and not having our family be consumed by Autism. I do these things because it is the right thing to do; it will give him the best opportunity for a successful future. No one is pushing me; no one is monitoring me; and often no one is praising me. I am thankful I learned these skills early on, so they are second nature to me, because managing all the daily tasks needed to raise a child with Autism are taxing enough.


When I was inspired to write this blog, the first people I reached out to were my former teammates. Nothing compares to the bond you form with the ladies who become your teammates. The women in the trenches (or gutter) with you “get it.” To be a Special Needs mom, you need “your people.” You need other mothers and fathers who are living the journey and understand it. In addition to the support, the skills I learned by being part of a team have only served me and my son. I approach every situation with how I can join with the provider, educator, or administrator. I think “how can we be on the same team to achieve the same goal.” I believe wholeheartedly this has created the successes we have seen thus far. The men and women I have met on our journey have become my new “teammates” and get me through challenging times.



As a swimmer, no matter how you are feeling you show up. It does not matter if you have an ear infection, bronchitis, the flu, a recent break up, or a major exam that afternoon; you show up. You get the job done, then you take care of yourself. Currently, I never know what each day will bring. How I feel does not play into how the day will unfold. Despite how I feel, I need to show up for my son. No matter how hard I try, I will never understand how hard it is to be Autistic and live in a non-Autistic world. Each year I do the polar plunge to raise money for the Special Olympics program and what I think about for the 5 minutes before I jump into the frozen lake, is this is only 2-3 minutes of discomfort; my son lives hours or days in discomfort. If I give into how I am feeling, he does not have relief. I can find moments later to take care of myself and having outside support allows for this necessary coping skill.


Athletes are hard on themselves. Swimmers, well, we take it to a whole new level. Imagine 25 girls all with Type A, perfectionist traits, and somehow managing to work as a unit. The best swimmers are the first ones to say, “what am I doing wrong?” or “how can I do this better?” I believe AZ will go farther with me as his mom because I am not afraid to say, “I don’t know. Help me. Teach me. Show me what I am doing wrong.” I do not have all the answers, and I will continually have to learn how to help my son talk and function in our society. This is okay with me. I invite this. There are others who have figured out ways to survive and thrive on this journey. I am okay with deferring to the experts.


While I do not know what our future holds, I do know I will always set lofty goals and be okay with falling short. I can recall sitting outside of McCoy Natatorium as a freshman where the seniors asked us to write down our goals. Naively I did and did so honestly. I was mocked for setting such a lofty goal. Seven months later no one was making fun of me, as I came just shy of achieving the goal I set back on that warm fall September day. I have carried this approach forward as I raise my son. I will always work to set goals for him as if he did not have a disability, while also adjusting my interventions and support to match his needs. I will never let Autism be an excuse for why he did not achieve something.




During the four years I swam for Penn State, our motto was “From the outside looking in, you can never understand it. From the inside looking out, you can never explain it.” This has never held more weight than it does now. My hope is that my blogging and sharing can help others understand. While some may get a glimmer into our world, I also accept that not all will fully grasp it. This is our life, and I am proud of where we are. I love the people who are also living this journey and give me hope and inspiration.


All of us have experiences in our life that help shape and guide us to respond and react certain ways. It is important to look at any challenging, arduous time in our life for how we can turn it into a valuable life lesson and make us a better person. I would never be where I am on my Specials Needs Mom Journey had it not been for the lessons I learned swimming that reached far beyond the lanes of a pool.














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1 comentário


crobison1004
05 de set. de 2020

Sarah what a beautiful analogy. And your hard work in life has certainly allowed you to be a competent, loving and wonderful mother. Also your experiences and insight will help others.

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