Swimming Towards States; Student Succeeds Despite Disability

Senior Evan Davis dives into the water in Seaholm's meet against North Farmington. Davis was diagnosed with ASD as a child.  PHOTO / MADELINE TEW
Senior Evan Davis dives into the water in Seaholm’s meet against North Farmington. Davis was diagnosed with ASD as a child. PHOTO / MADELINE TEW

Standing in the living room of his family home, senior Evan Davis flexed his left bicep, then his right.

“It’s okay?” Davis said, looking to his parents.

His father, Eric Head, smiled slightly.

“It’s fine man,” he said. “You have practice tonight, go upstairs and relax.”

Davis, having recently changed into his 2011-2012 Seahom Swimming and Diving t-shirt, did what he was told and ran up the wooden stairs.

“This is all day,” Davis’ mother, Alex Davis, said. “He wants the swimmer V, he wants to look like [graduated students] Jim LaFave or Spencer Rogers.”

Davis’ quest to become the typical “swimmer” with large upper body muscles, and trimmed abs, started with a measly 100 laps in his backyard swimming pool four years ago. To get him outside, away from his vast collection of movies and video games, Head set this 100 lap goal for his son.

“[Head] just said why don’t you do some laps,” Alex Davis said. “And they slowly worked up.”

By the end of the summer before his freshman year, Davis completed the 100 laps in one day and, in that time, became hooked on the sport.

“I don’t think anything compares to his love for swimming, anything,” Head said. “He loves videos, he loves movies, he loves Primos Pizza, but swimming’s it.”

According to his mother, Davis would be in their pool everyday that summer, doing more and more laps as time went on. Soon, although he had never swum competitively before, he started expressing a great amount of interest in joining the Seaholm boys swim team.

And that’s thing about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – expressive emotion can be difficult. So when Davis, who was diagnosed with ASD as a child, consistently showed his desire to join the team, his parents knew they had to do what they could to make it happen.

“To get [Davis] involved was obviously more difficult because he is so lacking in his verbal skills that it’s very difficult for him to express what he wants to do,” Alex Davis said. “He was very expressive about swim team. It was ‘Seaholm swim team’ and he’d carry around his yearbook with the page open to the new pool.”

Due to their son’s nonstop enthusiasm, Alex Davis and Head decided to sign him up. With head coach Tom Wyllie’s blessing, Davis was in the pool a few months later, swimming alongside the 40-some other swimmers on the team.

“As a swim coach, I don’t care if you’re a world champion swimmer or a dog paddler, if you have a disability or different learning styles,” Wyllie said. “If you’re willing to show up every day and put in the work required to become the best swimmer you can possibly become, then you are more than welcome to be a part of the team.”

During Davis’ freshmen year, he spent his time learning how to be a true competitive swimmer. His goals were relaxed, like learning how to dive off the block or perfecting his butterfly. Now, his main goal is much steeper: to get to the MHSAA Division 2 State Championship meet.

“Get to that state meet, that’s the ultimate in high school competition.” Wyllie said. “You’ll be competing against the fastest swimmers across the state, so if Evan were able to achieve that goal, I would be flabbergasted. It would be one of the best accomplishments that I would ever see in my coaching career.”

Currently Davis is about three seconds away in the 50 yard freestyle with a time of 25.20 and about eight seconds away in the 200 IM with a time of 2:16.32. To drop that amount of time in a swim race is extremely challenging, but doable.

Davis also has a chance of getting his state cut in the 500 yard freestyle and the 200 yard freestyle. In both of these events, Davis has the consideration cuts for the division 2 county meet.

Already since his freshman year, Wyllie said, Davis’ talent level has drastically changed. Since joining as more of a recreational swimmer, he’s scored points for the team at swim meets and has moved to be one of the faster swimmers.

“He’s actually broken into some of the varsity races and scored points for the team this year which he hasn’t done in previous years,” Wyllie said. “In other teams, he might be one of the stars. He’s gotten good, and when you compare him to a team like we have now… There’s a tendency to overlook just how good he is.”

Davis’ first practices were nerve-wracking experiences for his parents. He’d never left their side before, had never participated in an organized sport before, and only began swimming seriously at age 14 unlike most high school swimmers who begin to swim competitively in elementary school.

Additionally, the Davis’ were worried about their son assimilating. ASD is a disability that can make it tough for those who have it to be able to socialize, communicate easily, and understand others.

“Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disability that impacts males and females, but primarily males…”  Birmingham Public Schools ASD Supervisor, Stefanie Hayes said. “It impacts their socialization, communication, their behavior and their ability to interact with their world. A lot of times that can bring difficulties because it’s so complex.”

To ease their nerves, and help Davis communicate more appropriately, Alex Davis and Head stayed at practices in the beginning of his freshman year. They also asked a handful of high school girls to mentor him. Senior Joanna Wood was one of those mentors.

“[I was there] to help give direction and explain the sets to him because the coaches couldn’t always go over to him and tell him exactly what to do,” Wood said. “I was there to tell him when to go and explain what they were doing.”

Eventually, as the season went on, Davis became more comfortable with his surroundings. He could follow the other swimmers in his lane to figure out when to go, and would copy their movements. Davis no longer needed his parents or mentors to help him.

“One day I dropped him off and the car hadn’t even stopped yet and he opened the back door and bolted,” Head said. “That was his way of saying ‘I’m done with you, I can handle this, I got this.’ That was that and I never showed up again.”

Soon, the Seaholm swim team became Davis’ whole life. Day and night, swimming was all he would talk about.

“He can’t be any more into it than he is,” Head said. “Everyday he surprises us with new obsessions regarding Seaholm swimming.”

His push to become a state swimmer started his sophomore year, and continued throughout his junior year and, now, his senior year. He started doing everything in his power to become faster.

Working toward the state meet, Evan has met with personal trainers and has continued weight lifting throughout the year. He has even made small changes to his incredibly picky diet, which consisted mostly of apples, pizza, orange juice, milk, crackers and chocolate.

Now, in addition to trying bites of chicken and vegetables, his father makes him protein shakes almost daily.

“Sometimes he chokes it up, sometimes he spits it out, but it’s been going on for five months,” Head said.

One of the more important factors of becoming a state swimmer is a strong commitment to the team. Davis, who according to his parents has missed at most four practices in four years, has always had a true dedication to the sport.

“He is really, truly devoted in trying to become the best swimmer that he can possibly become,” Wyllie said. “That may mean getting to the state meet, it may not mean getting to the state meet… That he’s actually willing to take the risk and go for it, that can’t be said of all swimmers.”

Swimming alongside Davis during grueling four hour Saturday practices, and tough weight lifting sessions are the members of swim team that have welcomed Davis with open arms.

“One of the things that I am really proud of is that the swimmers on the team [past and present] have really embraced him as a teammate,” Wyllie said.  “He’s one of us. We often consider ourselves a band of brothers, and he’s part of the brotherhood.”

Alex Davis and Head have seen the team welcome Davis as a whole, though they know some swimmers are more comfortable with him than others.

“I have friends that are much more comfortable with [Davis] and others who don’t even want to start a conversation because they don’t know where to go with it,” Alex Davis said. “And I think it’s the same way on the team.”

Senior captain Will Crimmins has been a lane mate of Davis’ since their freshmen years.  He said that the team values Davis as a member as he’s not only a talented, varsity swimmer, but a great guy to have around.

“He’s really funny…” Crimmins said. “He talks to me a lot in our lane. He cracks some jokes, he’s caught on to some of the slang words we have going on.”

Over the course of their four years together, Crimmins has enjoyed watching not only Davis’ swimming continue to improve, but his communication skills as well.

“I was always one to support [Davis] from the beginning and now it’s turned into a relationship of mutual respect,” Crimmins said. “He’s always coming up to me, cheering me on [at meets]. It’s fascinating how much he’s changed over the four years.”

Wyllie has seen some of these same changes.

“I’ve seen his communication skills change over the years to from not speaking much at all freshman year, to we have conversations in full sentences,” Wyllie said. “That sounds simple but it’s a really big deal. We have these conversations about swimming, about his goals and about what he wants to do. It’s very rewarding to see that personal growth.”

For Davis’ parents, his personal development and dedication to the team has truly been the most valuable part of their son’s experience for them to watch. They want to support his goal to get to the state meet, but they’re proud of him regardless.

“Just the fact that he’s participating and he has such a great track record and that he stuck with it is good enough for me,” Alex Davis said.

Back at home, Alex Davis pulled down a picture of her son from the mantel. It was a “glamour shot” of Davis posing by the pool as a freshman. In it, he’s smiling at the camera decked head to toe in his maroon maple’s swimming jacket and sweatpants.

“Look at him, look at how tiny he was,” she said.

She laughed, setting the picture down. Now, four years later, he’s taken to drinking protein shakes and eating carrots, practicing hours upon hours a week, and constantly talking about his role models on the team.  All so he can have a shot of swimming among the fastest swimmers in the state at Oakland University in the 2013 MHSAA Division 2 Championship meet.

“I’ll be sad when it’s over,” Alex Davis said. “It’s what he lives for.”

4 thoughts on “Swimming Towards States; Student Succeeds Despite Disability

  1. Great article about a great guy! I’m so happy to be family with all of you — and we’re looking forward to the Groves/Seaholm meet on Thursday. Love, Ruby

  2. Wow! I am so proud of Evan. I hope all of his dreams come true! His success comes from determination and keeping his eye on the prize…and a lot of that comes from two parents who have dedicated their time and energy to foster the dream and reinforce those little words: “You can do it!.” Talk about team work…it starts right at home!

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