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Autism hasn’t suppressed Bullard’s swimming ability or his approachability

Posted: December 14, 2009 10:40 p.m.
Updated: December 15, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Golden Valley junior and Santa Clarita Sharks swimmer Ryan Bullard was diagnosed with autism at a very young age, but he's still managed to rack up a lot of medals - and maybe even more friends.

 
When the summer months roll around, some high school kids will travel across the country.

Some will compete in sporting events. Some will take a dip in the pool.

Ryan Bullard, meanwhile, will be doing all three of those things, rolled into one.

Bullard was recently selected to participate in a national swim meet in Nebraska from July 18-23.

“I’m very excited about it,” he says.

What makes the accomplishment even more remarkable is that Ryan was diagnosed with autism when he was 2 years old.

A developmental disability, autism affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others, often resulting in tics such as delayed responses.

Ryan is now a junior at Golden Valley and a member of both the school’s swim team and the local Special Olympics Santa Clarita Sharks swim club.

He swims in several different events, but specializes in the 100-meter freestyle, the 50-meter backstroke and the 100-meter medley relay.

As a member of the Sharks, he won multiple gold medals at the 2009 Special Olympics Southern California’s Summer Games at Cal State Long Beach.

Because of that accomplishment, his name was put in a pool with other gold medal-winners, according to Sharks head coach Curt Hill.

His name was later drawn to compete at the Special Olympics 2010 USA National Games in Lincoln, Neb.

Hill says that while the process is randomized, Ryan richly deserved the opportunity.

“In competition, he swims to win, but he congratulates whoever does win,” Hill says. “He gets the gold medal more often than not.”

Ryan has a collection of medals from past events he’s won, but it’s a collection of something else that illustrates what swimming has meant to him.

“Brent, Derrick, Joseph,” he’ll start.

“Jackie, Michael, Megan,” he’ll continue.

Other names will gradually come out of his mouth.

“Caesar. Trevor. Alan. Tiffany. Alex. Matt.”

The collection of names represents the friends he’s made, both through the Sharks program and at Golden Valley High School.

Autistic children generally withdraw into themselves and struggle in social situations.

Thanks to the Special Olympics program, does Ryan believe he’s become an outgoing person?

“An outgoing person?” he asks. “Yeah. The Santa Clarita Sharks helped me become that way.”

Born in the Santa Clarita Valley, Ryan joined the program when he was 11 years old when his parents, Steve and Stephanie, took him to sign up.

Although the social environment was new, his father says that Ryan was already quite comfortable in the water.

“We had a pool since he was an infant,” Steve says. “He developed his own stroke even, just on his own. He was playing around in the pool and somehow managed to propel himself and swim.”

Hill says that Ryan was a standout swimmer right away, and he remembers a day four years ago that demonstrated how far Ryan had come.

Ryan was participating in an event called the Polar Plunge at Hurricane Harbor at Six Flags Magic Mountain.

He met up with the advanced swimmers and spent most of the day hanging out with them, like any other kid.

“It was a big growing experience for everybody,” Hill says. “(Stephanie) and I just sat around and watched.”

These days, Ryan spends a lot of time in the pool.

He trains with the Sharks at the Santa Clarita Aquatic Center for an hour and a half every Saturday. Before those sessions, he also takes part in Hill’s “Athletes Coaching Athletes” program.

During that time, Ryan serves as a mentor for beginning swimmers or physically handicapped swimmers.

“It really pumps up our athletes,” Hill says. “They’re getting attention from those they really enjoy watching.”

Ryan also spends three nights a week with Golden Valley’s offseason program, which is in its first year.

“He blends really well with the rest of the students,” says Grizzlies head coach Jenn Marsden. “He started working out in our slower lanes and quickly moved up. He’s now working with swimmers who are varsity-caliber.”

According to Hill, it’s not hard to understand why Ryan has developed so fast.

Hill says Ryan listens to his coaches and keeps a positive attitude.

Standing a slender 6 feet 3 inches tall with big feet and big hands, Ryan’s stature is similar to Olympic champion Michael Phelps.

Autism also manifests itself through fixation on one particular thing, and Hill says it might help Ryan focus.

“With his disability, it probably allows him to focus on the end result,” Hill says. “Like Michael Phelps has said, he had learning disabilities as a kid. It helped him focus on his swimming.”

Stephanie says the Special Olympics office in Long Beach recently called and asked for an athlete to ride the Honda Float during the Tournament of Roses Parade.

Ryan, who also likes to draw, will be on the float.

“I’ve drawn myself in a 2000 red Honda Civic hatchback,” Ryan says, adding that he would like to own one. “It’s very difficult to find and very cool. A lot of people that have them like to hold on to them.”

Chances are Ryan will want to hold on to the memories he’ll make on New Year’s Day.

He’ll also want to hold on to the ones he’ll make in Nebraska.

He can file them away with the ones he’s made the last few years.

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