Mike and Kim Grossman were hesitant when their daughter asked to join the Canal Winchester High School girls swimming and diving team this season.
Marah Grossman, a freshman, has a high-functioning form of autism, which allows her to excel in most of her interests, such as academics and art, but makes it difficult for her to interpret social cues. She has difficulty establishing and maintaining friendships and said she has been bullied and picked on by classmates most of her life.
Grossman has had negative experiences playing team sports, including last fall when she competed for the freshman volleyball team.
"We weren't sure if joining the swim team would be a good idea because volleyball was not a good experience for her, and it devastates Marah and us when kids bully her or ostracize her from the group," her father said. "But we decided to give it a try after talking with coach Julie (Pastor), and being part of the swim club has been phenomenal for Marah thus far. It's been so refreshing for Marah to make friends and finally feel like she belongs and is part of a team."
Grossman said being accepted by her teammates and being cheered by them has raised her self esteem and made her freshman year a more positive experience.
"I like to swim but the people are what I enjoy the most," she said. "When my teammates cheer for me, it makes me happy because I've never had anyone do that for me before.
"It feels good to have (peers) treat me like I'm human and not like trash on the side of the road. I just want people to understand that I have feelings like everyone else and it makes me sad when I get picked on."
Grossman, who had never swam competitively, began taking private lessons from senior teammate Kasey Pastor two or three times a week in early November to prepare for this season.
Pastor usually picks up Grossman at her home and drives her to Garver YMCA, where they work on improving her technique and endurance.
"I (wasn't good) at first," Grossman said. "I couldn't even swim a full 25 (yards) from one end of the pool to the next because I got tired halfway there. But I kept practicing with Kasey every day and she helped me with my arms, legs and breathing, and she's helped me get a lot better."
After not breaking 51 seconds in the 50-yard freestyle in preseason practice, Grossman stunned her coaches by finishing in 42.34 in the opening meet Nov. 25 against Teays Valley, Bloom-Carroll and Liberty Union.
Grossman competed in the 100 free for the first time in Grandview's Yule at the Pool on Dec. 28, finishing in 1:44.38, and competed in the 100 backstroke for the first time in a meet against Northland and Centennial on Jan. 8, finishing in 1:48.87.
"Marah's a hard worker and it's amazing to see how fast she has improved in such a short amount of time," Kasey Pastor said. "She wasn't able to complete a full 25 (yards) the first time we trained together, and now she's able to swim a full 100 without stopping. She dropped nine seconds in her first meet competing in the 50 free, and that's really awesome."
Pastor, who serves as captain of the girls team, is proud to call Grossman a teammate.
"Our team is really accepting and welcoming of everyone, including Marah," she said. "I definitely will stick up for her if I see someone trying to bully her because she's an awesome girl."
Because of her autism, Grossman is uncomfortable being in crowds and so she often sits by herself at meets or stands by the pool cheering for her teammates as she waits for her turn to compete.
She also can be overwhelmed by loud sounds, such as the buzzer that is sounded to start a race.
"The challenge for autistic people is they are bombarded with all of the sounds, tastes, visuals and smells at big events, and they can be overwhelmed by so many experiences happening at the same time," Mike Grossman said. "Swim meets can be long, all-day events with large amounts of people in one place. Pools can be loud and hearing buzzers and starting horns are a challenge for her, but Marah's done a fantastic job of not getting irritated or exhausted by her surroundings."
Grossman said she is considering joining a club swimming team during the offseason with the goal of eventually getting in good enough shape to be competitive in the 500 free.
Whether or not she commits more time to swimming, she plans to continue volunteering some of her free time to helping others. Her altruistic pursuits include doing yard work for elderly neighbors, teaching Sunday school at her church, serving food to homeless people, putting together care packages for military families and painting murals at nursing homes and day care facilities.
"Even if I'm not the happiest person in the world all the time, it makes me feel good to make other people happy," she said. "I love it when I can make someone smile like a Cheshire cat."
Smith leads way for girls basketball team
Jasmine Smith had 20 points to lead the girls basketball team to a 50-40 win over visiting Dublin Scioto in an OCC-Cardinal Division on Jan. 10.
Raven Hamilton added 10 points for the Indians, who were 4-8 overall before playing DeSales on Jan. 13 and 3-4 in the OCC-Cardinal before playing Westerville North on Jan. 15.
Boys basketball team posts first OCC win
The boys basketball team defeated host Scioto 40-35 on Jan. 10 to improve to 1-5 in the OCC-Cardinal.
Brendan Snyder scored seven of his game-high 19 points in the first quarter to help the Indians jump out to a 10-2 lead. Kamon Craine added eight points for the Indians, who were 5-6 overall before playing Horizon Science Academy on Jan. 14.