Swim coach and educator Penny McDowall passes

Penny McDowall receives the North American Coach of the Year Award from Special Olympian Andrew Smiley at a ceremony in January last year. Mrs. McDowall passed away on Monday, at the age of 59. - Photo: Cayman Sports Buzz

Penny McDowall is being remembered as someone who was devoted to others, particularly those with special needs.

Mrs. McDowall, a former special education teacher, may be best known as the founder of the Special Olympics swimming program in Cayman. She was recognized both here and internationally for her work as a coach for the organization.

She died Monday after battling cancer for more than six years. She was 59.

“She is truly what you would call a legacy,” said Laura Ribbins.

Mrs. McDowall worked with Ms. Ribbins when the latter opened Fitness Connection gym in 1988. The two women were fast friends and ran marathons together in their younger years. Mrs. McDowall, who first came to the island in 1984 began teaching special needs students at the Lighthouse School in 1991. Three years later, she established a swimming program for those students under the umbrella of the existing Special Olympics organization. She sometimes brought her swimmers to do dryland training at Fitness Connection, Ms. Ribbins said, and was an inspiration.

“She saw potential in everybody,” Ms. Ribbins said. “She never looked at someone and thought, ‘You’re missing an ingredient.’ It was, ‘What do you have and how can we get the most out of that?’ The glass was always full, and if it went down to half, she pumped it up to full again.”

Raised in La Plata, Missouri, a small town in the eastern part of the state, Mrs. McDowall was a lifelong Cardinals fan. She played basketball in college and was part of a group of students who visited Cayman during school breaks to dive. She fell in love with the sport and the islands and moved here to work for Bob Soto’s Diving.

Not long after, she met her husband Rod. He had taught special needs students in his home country of Australia and was working for dive operator Surfside Water Sports. The two bonded over their common interests and were married in 1986.

Mrs. McDowall shifted to working at Fitness Connection not long after her son, Jamie, was born in 1987. When the McDowalls’ daughter, Jessica, followed three years later, Mrs. McDowall applied for a teaching position and was hired at the Lighthouse School.

She was surprised that on a small coral shoal surrounded by water, few of her students knew how to swim. She went about changing that and soon found herself training athletes for competition.

In a 2014 Cayman Compass story, she talked about how important it was to some of her students just to be able to get into the water.

“The look of sheer pleasure on a multi-level physically challenged person who is confined to a wheelchair, when they are able to float and move freely in the water, is the smile you will never forget,” she said. “It sees right into your soul.”

The Special Olympics program, she said, allowed her students to achieve things that otherwise would not have been possible.

“If I can get one athlete to grow, which might mean to do a stroke correctly without being disqualified in a race, to introduce themselves to other athletes from another country or sometimes to just even show up and participate, or have a family member come to realize that their athlete can accomplish feats that they never dreamed they could, I feel like I have achieved something,” she said.

Cayman’s Special Olympics spokeswoman Vanessa Hansen Allott said Mrs. McDowall’s passing will impact the organization.

“It’s a big loss,” she said. “Our hearts are broken.”

Ms. Hansen Allott said Mrs. McDowall had an infectious energy.

“She just had a zest for life,” she said. “She was never someone who was going to stand by the sidelines.”

She said Mrs. McDowall took steps in recent years to make sure future special needs swimmers would be provided for by preparing people to take her place.

“Her daughter is here coaching,” Ms. Hansen Allott said, along with Ryan Mushin, coach of the Stingray Swim Club. “She wanted to make sure that the swimming program continued after she was gone.”

Mr. McDowall said he thinks his wife will mostly be remembered for her work with the swim program.

“She’s introduced so many young children to swimming,” he said, heightening their physical as well as their social abilities. “She used it as a social interaction for the kids.”

Mrs. McDowall was honored as Caribbean Coach of the Year in 2006. In 2009, she was one of 40 people worldwide to receive the Special Olympics Exemplary Coach award. Cayman honored her with its Certificate and Badge of Honour the following year. And in 2014, she was named Special Olympics North American Coach of the Year.

She was also instrumental in introducing and writing the rules for open water swimming events in the Special Olympics.

The accolades were appreciated, Mr. McDowall said, but his wife was far more interested in the work itself.

“Her empathy for the less fortunate, particularly children, was exceptional,” he said. “We’d have adopted 15 to 20 kids over the years if she’d had her way. It was Penny’s passion, without a shadow of a doubt.

“She did it because she loved it,” he added. “I think the biggest impact was on the Cayman children.”

Mr. McDowall said a celebration of Mrs. McDowall’s life is planned for later in the month. Details will be announced in the coming days.

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