In the swim


Staff Writer

When she wants to get somewhere, Macy Westrick crawls.

Walking comes with effort for the 8-year-old Green Gables Elementary School student, who has cerebral palsy –– a condition that impairs motor function. But swimming comes easily. Macy can do that. And she does it well.

Every other Tuesday, Macy and a few of her classmates go to Highline Physical Therapy and Sports Center with their physical therapists to participate in the Federal Way school district's Warm Water Therapy program. In the pool, Macy moves with more grace, speed and confidence than she is able to on land. The water's high temperature relaxes her muscles and lends her the freedom of movement that land cannot.

"She loves to swim," said Denise Van Wey, Macy's physical therapist.

Macy's parents, Amy and Kirk Westrick, agree. When Macy is in the swimming pool, "she is definitely full of smiles and excited," said Amy.

Swimming brings out Macy's competitiveness and gives her the opportunity to socialize with other kids. One of Macy's favorite pool activities is racing with her friend, 10-year-old Jeffrey Kennedy.

Tuesday was the last day of the school year that Macy and Jeffrey raced. The swim therapy program will close for the summer but will reopen in the fall. The kids, parents and physical therapists celebrated their achievements by having a small party, with lunch donated from local restaurant owner Jae Hong of Herfy's Burgers and Shakes.

Nibbling at his lunch of chicken nuggets and French fries, Jeffrey said he loves to swim and race Macy in the pool. Sometimes he wins. When not racing, Jeffrey and his physical therapist, Tricia Yingling, focus on relaxing Jeffrey's muscles. Their goal is to make Jeffrey ambulatory and independent.

Yingling marveled at Jeffrey's progress over the last few years.

"This is the boy who wouldn't put his chin in the water three years ago. Now he's diving to the bottom, which is over five feet," Yingling said.

She said she focuses on developing Jeffrey's independence in the pool to help strengthen his independence in operating his new wheelchair.

"He is so good at learning that he has become good at everything," said Yingling. "He's easy to teach. He's trusting because he tries things. He never says no."

When it was time to reapprove the school district's water therapy program, Chris Willis, co-director of special education, said yes. He has done so the last four years.

"We're going to support the program next year," said Willis.

The program has come a long way since it began, helping kids with disabilities become more self-assured and more independent. Sue Parson, a physical therapist for the sistrict, was one of the program’s founders.

"A parent who had a child with a progressive disorder didn't want her daughter swimming in the cold water," said Parson.

Medical research and articles reported that warm water helps kids with certain physical disabilities –– such as muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy –– relax their muscles. Parson said cold water makes muscles more tense. Her suggestion for a warm water therapy program won the support of the school district, which got an estimate for building a warm water pool. The cost was too much.

The same parent who first approached Parson discovered the warm therapeutic pool at Highline Physical Therapy and Sports Center, located in Federal Way. The district decided to rent the pool 16 times a year. The cost is $4,000 a year, according to Willis. He said most of the money comes from a federal government grant and from the state's special education allotment.

For kids like Macy Westrick and Jeffrey Kennedy, the therapy program makes a difference.

Macy, sitting in a wheelchair near the swimming pool Tuesday, said, "I'm a fish!" She raised her arms above her head, her brown eyes lighting up as she smiled. Her parents laughed.

Staff writer Elizabeth Ciepiela: 925-5565,

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