NCAA DIII Athletes Making a Difference by Partnering with Special Olympics

Photo Courtesy: Cori Wong

By McKenna Ehrmantraut, Swimming World College Intern. 

DIII student-athletes across the country are partnering with the Special Olympians of their towns to help coach, motivate and create friendships with them that will last a lifetime. On August 1, 2011, the NCAA launched a unique partnership between Special Olympians and DIII athletes. College athletes are given the opportunity to volunteer their time to help coach and encourage the special Olympians in their local areas. Athletes of all skill levels are encouraged to participate and learn from the partnership with the DIII student-athletes.

“The purpose of the partnership is to enhance the lives of Division III student-athletes and Special Olympic athletes through a mutual learning experience; provide a platform for recognition of Special Olympics’ athletes and Division III student-athletes within their communities; and raise awareness of Special Olympics, its programs and services.” -NCAA 


Photo Courtesy: Cori Wong

The University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington is one of the DIII schools participating in the swimming program. After going through a background check and signing up through a simple online application, the college swimmers are paired with their Special Olympians who quickly become their new training partners and friends. 

Jodie, a Special Olympics athlete, loves working with all of the students, including University of Puget Sound senior Allison Hoops, saying: “She’s a nice person and helps me get ribbons and medals at meets.” Hoops loves how fast the two of them connected and says, “I always think it’s really fun getting to hang out and chat with everyone. My favorite part is the conversations we have together.” 

The 60-90 minute training program takes place weekly and brings Wallace Pool to life with laughter and smiles between the Washington Special Olympic and University of Puget Sound coaches and athletes alike. 


Photo Courtesy: Cori Wong

Sophie Semenjuk, a freshman at the University of Puget Sound, was overjoyed that they offered the program at school, because she had been volunteering with the Special Olympics program during her high school years in California. “It’s something that honestly makes my day so much better, and I love the opportunity to do it at UPS. It feels amazing to give back to the community, and I really love interacting with a different set of people that I’ve never met before. I’ve made new friends, and it’s just really fun. I love it!” Semenjuk says.

“The ongoing partnership between the University of Puget Sound and Washington Special Olympics team gives the student-athletes a chance to connect with their local community and share their knowledge of swimming with aspiring Special Olympic athletes,” says Kai Haven, a UPS co-captain and volunteer.

The Special Olympic athletes work with their coaches, parents, and program directors to decide which three events they want to swim at their end-of-season meet. After that, the student-athletes work specifically on the swimmers’ favorite event choices and help them with their technique and endurance as well as mentally preparing for their big races. On top of individual races, the swimmers have the opportunity to do relays with one another and even a mixed relay with their University of Puget Sound student-athlete coaches. 


Photo Courtesy: Cori Wong

Kelli Callahan, a junior co-captain at UPS, talks about her coaching experience: “I think coaching is really fulfilling. I personally have always loved swimming, and I like the opportunity to help others enjoy something that I’m passionate about.” Callahan works with another Kelli from the Special Olympics team. Kelli and Kelli are quite the dynamic duo in the UPS program, and both love being able to work with one another. Besides sharing the same name, both of them love the water. Special Olympian Kelli says, “I’ve been swimming for a long time. I like to swim with all the coaches, and I’m excited for the rest of the season.” 

Volunteering to help the Special Olympians participate in the sport they love connects the swimmers like nothing else can. Whether the student-athlete coaches only instruct their swimmer for one season or throughout their collegiate career, watching them improve with a smile on their face is a joy in and of itself. 

For more information about the program or even starting a new partnership with a DIII school, click here.

-All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff. 


  1. Christina Sosnowski Lowry

    Libertyville Stars utilizes age group swimmers as peer coaches for our Olympians!

  2. Scott Chlebove

    Megan Chlebove, Daniel Chlebove…does Mis have a partnership?