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At Ease in the Water

Swimming helps student conquer social, academic challenges of autism

Southern Connecticut State University swimming coaches often are astounded by Tyler Steskla’s memory recall. Many swimmers struggle to remember their final times from meets or practice laps. Yet Tyler can look at his splits — each leg up and down the pool — and compare them to splits from previous days or races, down to the hundredth of a second. It’s a gift, coaches say, that his mild autism provided.

That’s appropriate, given that swimming has provided something to Steskla to help him through the things that autism made challenging. He didn’t speak a full sentence until he was 4 years old, yet he now maintains a 3.0 GPA as an accounting major. In high school, counselors steered him toward classes that didn’t qualify as college core curriculum. Yet after persevering through the eligibility process, he qualified to be a college swimmer. His love for the sport, which he started at age 8, drove him to push through those social and academic challenges that come with autism.

“It kind of made me expand my horizons,” he says. “It made me get out of the comfort zone a little bit.”

That push is significant. College is intimidating for any freshman, let alone one who gets anxious in social situations and uncomfortable engaging in conversations when he senses others around him are more knowledgeable. The idea of living in a dorm with strangers, managing the daily stress of college life and tackling the academic rigors of accounting was daunting. Swimming, though, provided a foundation.

The sport raised his confidence. He had tried other youth sports like soccer and baseball, experiences he now calls “horrible” experiments. But Steskla felt he knew what he was doing in the pool, which made those hours enjoyable. With that joy came increased understanding of the sport, which made him comfortable talking to his teammates. They spoke a common language, and Steskla could converse knowledgeably.

That platform gave him confidence to take a leap toward otherwise intimidating situations, such as classes and social interactions away from the pool. The sport is built around improving each day with a goal of setting a new personal record in the pool — discipline that Steskla learned could be applied to all aspects of his life. “It kind of makes this open vision of the fact that you can always go further,” he says. “I always like to look for how far I can go, and that’s both in swimming and the classroom.”

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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