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Autistic Beaverton teen represents USA in Special Olymics summer games

by: Submitted photo Sunset High School junior Mason Coad is competing in the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games, which runs through July 4.

If anyone witnessing Mason Coad's introduction to the swimming pool suggested the 8-year-old autistic boy might develop into a world-class athlete by age 16, his parents may have laughed or possibly taken offense at such a seemingly absurd notion.

'When we signed him up, he didn't like the water at all. He hated water,' says Mason's mother, Mia, sitting at a table beside the West Hills Racquet Club pool, where her son practices his strokes. 'He was grabbing the rail and screaming his lungs out for seven months.'

If being flown to Athens, Greece, to represent the United States in the 2011 Special Olympics' swimming competition is any indicator, those days for the Beaverton teen are long gone.

Coad, 16, who will be a junior this fall at Sunset High School, set off for Greece on Saturday.

He is one of two Oregon swimmers competing for Team USA in the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games, which begin Saturday in Athens and conclude with closing ceremonies on July 4.

Role models

David Crippen, coach of the Dolphins Swim Team, started giving lessons to young Mason in 2003. He was excited, if not overly surprised, to hear his protégé got the call to compete in an international competition.

'He's a really committed kid,' Crippen says. 'He's one of the hardest working kids in the pool, and it rubs off on other swimmers.'

Specializing in long-distance swimming and equally adept at freestyle, backstroke, butterfly and breaststroke, Mason will compete in the 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle events at the Special Olympics competition in Greece.

'Mason's set a really high standard for the pool,' Crippen says, 'and a lot of kids look up to him.'

Such lofty praise may never have been possible, Mia Coda says, were it not for Sharron Patapoff, supervisor of the Beaverton Swim Center and the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District's swimming program for developmentally disabled children.

Patapoff encouraged Mason's mom, who wanted her son to feel safe on the family's catamaran sailboat, to ignore her child's high-velocity fits of protest in the pool.

Of course, for a caring mother still learning the ropes of raising an autistic child, putting her friend's suggestion into practice was at first excruciating.

'Sharron said, 'Just leave him here, and a year from now he won't want to come out of the water,'' Mia recalls of Patapoff's advice toward handling Mason's outbursts. 'The other parents were looking at me. It was so embarrassing.'

Eventually, the ploy worked its magic.

'We'd put one leg in the water, and then another leg,' Mia says. 'Sharron encouraged me not to give up and find good coaches for Mason.'

Gold standard

By the time he was 11, Mason was competing in the Washington County Special Olympics. He performed a little better each year until bringing home gold medals became routine.

Mason's brother William, 19, says his family had to intervene when Mason underestimated his level of success.

'The thing with Mason is, he thought his goal was to collect all three - a gold, silver and a bronze,' William recalled with a laugh. 'He'd try to trade away his gold medals. After a while, Mom and Dad gave him a lecture.

'He wanted a complete set,' Mia adds, still delighted with her son's innocent assumption. 'He wanted the satisfaction of a full set. Now he knows the shiny gold meant more.'

The call from the Special Olympics of Oregon committee to inform Mia and her husband, Michael, that their son qualified for Team USA came totally out of the blue.

'The minute we got the news from the Olympic committee, we let (Mason) know,' Mia says. 'We got out a map and books and explained about the Olympics and (champion swimmer) Michael Phelps.'

Given Mason's shaky history with sleeping peacefully even at his grandma's house, his parents were unsure how he would fare with international travel and weeks away from home.

But in classic Mason fashion, he soon put his folks' fears to rest.

'He went this spring to the Team USA training camp in San Diego. It was his first time away from home,' Mia recalls. 'The coaches called me and said, 'You know what? He's doing great. He's having the time of his life. He's just a social butterfly.

'Then we knew he could go to Greece,' she says.

As Mia and William prepared to take off for Athens this week, Michael is staying behind to hold down the fort. The Beaverton business attorney plans to keep in touch with his family by Skype videoconferencing during the June 25-July 4 competition.

The proud dad says his son's only flaw as an athlete is, well, not knowing when to stop.

'One of the things Mason's had to learn is the notion of urgency, that when the gun goes off, you've gotta go,' he says. 'But he never gets tired. He enjoys keeping pace, and he'll keep going back and forth until someone says, 'Stop!''

'He understands what's at stake,' Michael adds, explaining it's common for autistic children tend to seek approval from parents and coaches. 'I think Mason will give his very best effort.

'We're very pleased for this opportunity he's been given.'

William, a biology senior at Portland State University, says autism research that may help Mason and others like him is driving him toward medical school.

'My main motivation is purely Mason,' he says.

Despite differences in the brothers' communication and learning styles, William says he wouldn't change a thing about his family.

'Would I prefer to have a 'normal' brother, per se? Of course. Everybody wants a brother they can hang out and do things with,' he says.

'But would I want a different brother? Of course not.'