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Del Webb swimmer makes a special memory at Special Olympics USA Games

Mary Russell, 24, won a gold medal in the women's 100 yard freestyle (1:30.34) at the event, which was held Jun 5-12 in Orlando.

Mary Russell, 24, takes a bite of her gold medal at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games. Russell won the women's 100 yard freestyle (1:30.34). (Courtesy photo)
Mary Russell, 24, takes a bite of her gold medal at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games. Russell won the women's 100 yard freestyle (1:30.34). (Courtesy photo)
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Del Webb's Mary Russell could not talk until she was 5. 

Now 24, Russell cannot stop talking about her gold medal. 

Russell, a swimmer, won gold in the women's 100-yard freestyle (1:30.34) at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games, held June 5-12 in Orlando.

Russell also finished third in the 100-yard backstroke (1:46.59) and in the 200 medley relay (3:53.73). A golf cart parade was held in her honor June 21 throughout the Del Webb community and featured congratulations from Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh. 

Winning gold in the 100 free was something Russell, who is autistic, had told her parents, Sarah and Mark, that she was determined to do. Her mom said that Russell gets her mind on something, she is going to accomplish it. It proved to be true. 

"It feels great," Russell said. "It has not totally sunk in. It's getting there. There was a time I did not think I was going to make the USA Games. Like, me? Really? But I did, and once I got there, I thought I could win."

Mary Russell, 24, swims for gold in the 100 meter freestyle at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games. Russell won the event in 1:30.34.  (Courtesy photo)
Mary Russell, 24, swims for gold in the 100 meter freestyle at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games. Russell won the event in 1:30.34. (Courtesy photo)

Russell has been swimming since before she could talk, Sarah Russell said. She took to the water instantly. At the time, the Russells lived in Newport News, Virginia. Russell was involved in swimming year-round, even during the cold winters, first taking private lessons twice a week before moving on to a non-competitive swim team that focused on stroke work. In the summer, she swam for a competitive swim team. When she reached high school age, she swam for Woodside High, too. She could not get enough. 

"I just found it fun," Russell said. "I loved being with my friends on the team. I did not start to care about winning until I got older. I did not understand the importance of it. I just liked to swim, and I got better over time."

Russell said her swim coaches, particularly David Reid and Carol Prentiss, were instrumental in her success. They were patient with her, helping her learn at her pace. Russell appreciated her coaches' treatment, as she embraces who she is. It is an infectious attitude to have, one that people seem to gravitate toward. While at Woodside High, Russell was named homecoming queen. 

"I don't see autism as a disability. I see it as a different ability," Russell said. "You have to understand how I am different from you. I'm not stupid — that's the worst thing someone can say to a person with a mental disability. I'm just as smart as you; it just takes me longer to understand things sometimes. I'm like you, I just get frustrated more easily, things like that. My coaches understood that. I could not have done this without all the incredible support I have had from them and my parents and my friends, ever since I started this journey."

Of course, there were some speed bumps along the way. Sarah Russell said that doctors initially thought her daughter would never be able to speak. That turned out to not be true, but she did need years of twice-a-week speech therapy. Luckily, Russell never had any kind of athletic restrictions, which is why her family put her in the pool so early. Despite her swimming prowess, there were hiccups there, too — though usually more of the lighthearted variety. 

Mark Russell shared the story of one of her daughter's Virginia swim team races. Her brother, Billy, was in attendance. He was screaming at her: "Swim, swim! Go, go, go!" Russell stopped, stood up and looked at him. 

"I am," Russell said.

She then continued the race. It remains one of Mark and Sarah Russell's favorite stories and makes them laugh every time it is brought up. 

"She is always a good competitor," Sarah Russell said. "She just wants everybody to have fun. If she does poorly, you will never see it on her face. She is encouraging to the other athletes as well." 

Rooting for everyone to do well does not mean Mary Russell fails to work hard for success of her own. Far from it. It has taken a lot of practice to get where she is. Only 15 swimmers from Florida were selected for the USA Games. And, of course, her gold medal speaks for itself. Mary Russell said she found out she was selected for the Games in October 2021.

In January, Russell joined the Lakewood Ranch YMCA to start practicing as much as she could. She said she practiced three to four days a week in preparation. It's why she was so confident in her ability to do well — but she was still nervous upon arrival in Orlando.

"The first day, it was just people from Florida," Russell said. "The second day, it was people from around the world. It was crazy. I was nervous, but I got to meet so many new people. That is what I love most. I make friends easily, so I made a lot of new friends. 

Russell learned a lot from her brother, who swam for the College of William & Mary and holds the school's second-fastest 200 yard freestyle time (1:36.45) among other accomplishments. Mary was at all of Billy's meets and even got to know his teammates.

"She's invited to all the weddings," Sarah Russell said.

Sarah Russell said her daughter Mary Russell's preparation before her gold medal swim looked a lot like Billy Russell's preparation before his swims, complete with arm stretches.

It worked for Billy, and it worked for Mary. 

"It was great to see her get that gold medal," Sarah Russell said. "It brings you to tears because she has had a full life. Most kids with disabilities don't have those."



Ryan Kohn

Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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