Nine-year-old Abby Bauleke found what she was looking for in a most improbable spot. She had tagged along, following her older brother and sister to their basketball, football and soccer games -- waiting for her time to come. Then leukemia and a paralyzing infection threatened to put a damper on this bundle of energy and enthusiasm, who lives in Savage.
On a recent afternoon, Abby slipped effortlessly out of her wheelchair and into an indoor swimming pool tucked into a nondescript industrial maze of warehouses in Eden Prairie.
"I feel free when I'm swimming," Abby said. "And my teammates are great."
As she pulled herself through the water, lap after lap, Abby was surrounded by other children swimming, splashing, kickboarding and laughing. The Clownfish Swim Club was at it again, a unique team comprising more than two dozen kids with autism, Down syndrome and other disabilities that all melt away once they break the water's surface.
"What I like about it is that it's other kids like me, so I'm not judged," said Emma Stupke, 16, who has mild cerebral palsy. "When I'm in the pool and swimming with other kids, they don't know I have a disability. So it's normal."
The Clownfish Swim Club, now in its third year as an independent nonprofit, took its name from the special-needs fish in the animated film "Finding Nemo."
"One of his fins was messed up, so I suggested the name for our team," said Abby Hirsch, 16, whose Down syndrome hasn't kept her from competing in synchronized swimming, strength training or basketball at Wayzata High School. "At first I didn't want to get in the water because I was afraid of getting water up my nose. Then Debbie took my hand and I've been in the water ever since."
Debbie is Debbie Townsend, the ringleader of this jovial bunch. A lifelong swimmer who began working with special-needs kids at Courage Center in 1992, Townsend struck out on her own in 2007 because the autonomy gave her more control and flexibility. Since then, the roster has grown from 10 to 30, drawing swimmers ranging in age from 9 to 20 and coming from Anoka, Minnetonka, Edina, Hopkins, Savage and Eden Prairie. They rent pool space from the Foss Swim Club's Eden Prairie location off Flying Cloud Drive.
"Anything goes," said Townsend, 58. "When I say: 'Backstroke!' you'll see people doing the butterfly. And that's fine. All these individual differences is what makes this fun, and their differences are what makes them a unique group."
Some kids, such as Abby Bauleke, are competitive and relish setting new personal records. Others, such as 15-year-old Brandon Leu, are equally inspiring testaments to perseverance. Brandon is autistic and joined his aunt Liz Voss' family when his parents died. At the time, he couldn't dress himself or communicate, let alone swim.
Voss, a nurse, brought him to Clownfish, where he started by simply blowing bubbles in the water. He slowly began adding strokes and talking to his teammates. His breakthroughs have continued outside the pool. Brandon, for example, is now is an accomplished cellist -- among other things.
"Children with autism often go into another place in their brain," Voss said. "In the water, they can't do that and this has helped Brandon develop pathways that help him engage."
Parents collectively rave about both the club's social and exercise benefits for their kids, not to mention the informal support group among parents that has developed on the pool deck.
"Everybody's just accepted here," said Judy Mangum of Edina, whose 17-year-old son, John, suffers from a rare neurodegenerative disorder called Batten disease. "Whatever he can do is what he can do, and the reason he's still walking today is because he's swimming."
Ginger Guggenberger said her son's autism and cognitive impairment include behavioral issues that made joining traditional swim teams problematic for Kyle, 20. At Clownfish, he has not only been embraced, but he has honed his swimming skills: In the recent national Special Olympics in Nebraska, he took home three gold medals.
"It's enough structure that he can stay focused," said Guggenberger, of Minnetonka. "But it's not too structured that he can't follow the rules."
Phil Krafft said the club has boosted the confidence of his 16-year-old daughter, Hannah, who has Down syndrome.
"All her friends are here having fun together and the social thing is huge," he said. "At 16, being around boys is an important piece for Hannah."
But mostly it's about achieving success. On a recent family trip, Krafft suggested Hannah race her 11-year-old brother at a hotel pool. After two lengths, Hannah won by 6 feet.
"It bugged him to no end," Krafft said. "And to say she was thrilled would be an understatement."
And that puts a smile on the face of her Clownfish coach.
"It's amazing that with all the different ages, physical statures and abilities, this just works," Townsend said. "When we come together, we have so much fun and I just want them to leave feeling happy that they've succeeded and done some good."
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767