One of the loudest rounds of applause at a boys’ swimming meet between No. 1-ranked Eden Prairie and Wayzata on Jan. 29 was not for a varsity event.

It was the JV 200-yard medley relay and an exhibition 50-yard freestyle race featuring Eden Prairie sophomore swimmer Nick Murray.

A multisport athlete, Murray also plays floor hockey, golf and runs track. He usually participates on Special Olympics teams instead of high school programs because he has autism.

When Murray started attending Eden Prairie High School this year, his mother, Mikki Johnson, wanted to see if the program would be willing to let her son swim with the team.

“He has always loved the water since he was really little, and he was able to swim really early,” Johnson said. “So this year I just asked if they would be open-minded to it and they were like, ‘Yeah, let’s give it a try,’ and he’s just been absolutely thrilled.”

Lynette Even, Murray’s special education teacher at the school, said she thinks the team environment is just as important to Murray as swimming because he is a social person.

“He’s a natural athlete, he likes all kinds of activities. I know he’s been swimming for a long time and I think the athletic part of it, he enjoys,” Even said. “But I think being part of the team is also a big draw for him.”

Eagles coach Kelly Boston said Murray practices with the team three days a week for the full two hours and does almost every training activity the other swimmers do. He swims at a slower pace or at a modified distance.

“He came and he tried a couple of practices, and we knew right away that he would fit in,” Boston said. “The boys are great with him, they help him. He is a teammate, he fits right in to this really amazing team.”

Boston said Murray has learned how to start a relay since joining the team this season. He is working on incorporating a flip turn into his races.

Eagles junior swimmer Nate Volz, who swims relays with Murray, said the team doesn’t consider him to be any different of a teammate.

“I love swimming with somebody that I really get to cheer for,” Volz said. “He’s at almost every single practice, he swims laps just like us, he works hard just like us, he’s normal in every way.”

Because Murray is a visual learner and sometimes needs more encouragement to continue swimming, Eagles assistant coach Becca Morness developed a system of hand signals depicting the strokes to aid Murray when he’s in the pool.

“We kind of learned on the first couple of days that if I actually act out freestyle arms, he’ll swim freestyle,” Morness said. “It was very natural. On the first day, right when we met and he got in the water, we kind of took the first practice to really get that down and we’ve been doing it ever since.”

Murray is visibly excited before his races during meets. Morness said while he may not come in first place, Murray is always the subject of the loudest applause from both teams and their fans.

“It’s really fun to see that everyone from our team and from other teams have really celebrated him,” Morness said. “You can just tell he loves the water, and he loves being a part of the team.”

Johnson was brought to tears when describing how inspiring it is to see her son in the pool with an Eagles swim cap on.

“It makes me tear up just talking about it,’’ she said. “It’s so joyous to see people be so open-minded and caring, and the team and the boys have been amazing young men to him.”

 

Kaitlin Merkel is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.