By Phillip Whitten
SAN DIEGO, April 19. FOUR members of the USA Swimming National Team spent part of this afternoon visiting with youngsters at the San Diego Children's Hospital.
The National Team members — Tom Wilkens, Stacianna Stitts, Shelly Ripple, and Natalie Coughlin — are in San Diego for a National Team training camp. At the suggestion of 1996 Olympic gold medalist Mark Henderson and Bryan Jones, both members of USA Swimming's Athletes Executive Committee, the four volunteered to take part in the visit to Children's Hospital. SwimInfo interviewed them as they rode back to the training camp in a limo.
Tom Wilkens said: "The kids ranged from about two to 18, and they had a variety of ailments, including such things as cancer and cerebral palsy. Actually, the Hospital people asked us not to ask the children why they were there, so in most cases, we didn't know what the kids had.
"We met in a big room, where there were a lot of toys and games like Air Hockey. We signed shirts, Staci and I showed our Olympic medals and the kids got to try them on and were photographed wearing them."
Wilkens was also interviewed for a TV documentary about the young patients in Children’s Hospital.
"The older kids, those 10 and older, seemed to really appreciate our visit," said Shelly Ripple. "The younger kids were more into getting autographs and having their pictures taken with us."
"My dad is a pediatric dentist, and he works a lot with handicapped children, kids with Down Syndrome and other problems, and he sometimes had me come with him. Those experiences had a big impact on me. So when Bryan (Jones) called yesterday and asked if I would participate, I jumped at the opportunity."
Stacianna Stitts probably had the greatest impact on the children, as they could relate immediately to her baldness, the result of alopecia. "It was awesome," she said. "Their faces really lit up when they saw us, and especially when they got to hold my gold medal."
Stitts particularly connected with a young girl, also without hair, who was on an IV. "She really was able to relate to me," said Stitts, who also met a patient who had been a classmate of hers at nearby Carlsbad High School.
"This is something I definitely will do again," said Stitts. "It only takes an hour or so and it really impacts these kids."
Natalie Coughlin is another swimmer who plans to make more community service visits in the future.
"Some of the kids we visited were obviously very ill," said Coughlin, "while others appeared to be entirely normal. There was one little eight-year-old girl, Arianne — I spent a lot of time talking with her and her mother. Arianne was very sweet and, at first, very shy."
"The kids seemed to really enjoy meeting us, and especially Stacianna. A lot of them told us they like to swim and to watch swimming on TV."