Special Olympics swimming coach Elizabeth Waugh helps a swimmer with his goggles.
Special Olympics Coach Elizabeth Waugh helps a swimmer with his goggles. Credit: Courtesy / Special Olympics USA

Wrapping ankles and knees, icing shoulders, stretching hamstrings, treating and rehabbing injuries. This is the life Elizabeth Waugh saw for herself when she went to Texas Women’s University intending to be an athletic trainer.

She ended up becoming a swimming coach for Special Olympics athletes instead, despite having no competitive background in the sport.

Now the San Antonio native is on the other side of the world helping 23 U.S. swimmers pursue gold-medal dreams at the 2019 Special Olympics World Games being held in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates.

“It’s the first time it’s being held in the Middle East,” Waugh said of the competition. “It’s going to be the largest humanitarian event and athletic event this year [in Abu Dhabi]. I think it’s really a way for the UAE to showcase where they have come with acceptance with individuals with intellectual disabilities. I think it’s going to be huge.”

Waugh is one of 11 women from the San Antonio area in the U.S. delegation that left March 6 for a 17-day adventure in the Persian Gulf city, where more than 7,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities will compete March 14-21 in 24 events.

Others in the San Antonio group include basketball coaches Teresa Sullivan and Dee Muth, and equestrian coach Sherri Mell. Teammates Jenie Cardenas, Tiffany Evans, Kaylah Hankins, Jamie Holt, Ashley Muth, Magdalena Robles, Kristen Short, and Courtney Thompson will compete in women’s basketball.

It is the first time Waugh has coached in the World Games. It’s the first time she has traveled overseas and the first time she has been away from her 7-year-old son for more than three days.

“Go big or go home,” she said.

Her husband, Cameron Waugh, encouraged her to apply for the opportunity. He coached last summer at the U.S. nationals in Seattle.

Elizabeth Waugh first began working with Special Olympics athletes 14 years ago in college while taking a course an adaptive physical education course that was required to earn a degree in athletic training. When the course ended, her instructor sat her down and suggested she change her major because she seemed to have a knack for working with athletes.

“To be honest, I was like, ‘No, no, no.’ But then I found myself coming back even after I had completed the course,” Waugh said. “I came back the following semester just to volunteer and spend more time. Finally, I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re right. I love it. This makes me feel happy when I’m here.’ So I switched my major.”

She went on to earn her master’s degree in adaptive physical education
and became certified to teach all levels of PE and special education.

The North East Independent School District recruited her to return home to San Antonio, where she now works with young special-education athletes at Churchill High School, Bradley Middle School, Eisenhower Middle School, and Larkspur Elementary.

“I’m so excited for this opportunity,” Waugh said of coaching 23 swimmers in the Special Olympics, including four whose training she has overseen since last summer. “We got to work with our athletes and fellow coaches back in September in training camp at the University of Delaware. So I am truly just looking forward to seeing them all again.”

Special Olympics swimming coach Elizabeth Waugh leans down to talk to her swimmers during practice.
Special Olympics swimming coach Elizabeth Waugh leans down to talk to her swimmers during practice. Credit: Courtesy / Special Olympics USA

Behind Special Olympics athletes are stories of people overcoming significant obstacles to demonstrate their strength and perseverance. The parents and coaches who help them succeed are just as dedicated.

Barry Muth dreamed of coaching his daughter Ashley and her teammates at the World Games in basketball, but he died unexpectedly a little more than a year ago. His widow, Dee Muth, decided to take his place after previously serving as as chaperone and team mom when her husband was alive.

Dee Muth will serve as an assistant to fellow San Antonian Teresa Sullivan, who is coaching in her second World Games. She helped the U.S. co-ed softball team win gold in 2011.

Sherri Mell has been coaching Special Olympics for 26 years and was named Coach of the Year in Texas in 2005 and 2016. This is her first World Games, but she has an extensive background in rodeo and equestrian competition. She was inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Appaloosa Hall of Fame in 2006.

Special Olympics USA participants take a photo together at the airport before leaving for Abu Dhabi.
Special Olympics USA participants take a photo together at the San Antonio International Airport before leaving for Abu Dhabi. Credit: Courtesy / Special Olympics USA

When the San Antonio contingent returns from the World Games, they will have a little more than one month before the Special Olympics Texas Summer Games comes to Morgan’s Wonderland May 2-5.

Organizers of the Summer Games say they are in need of as many as 3,000 volunteers to help with a competition expected to feature the same number of athletes competing in track and field, soccer, cycling, gymnastics, and tennis. For information on serving as a volunteer, click here.

Kyle Ringo is a freelance journalist based in San Antonio. He has covered business, college athletics, the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball for numerous publications and websites.