SUNSET PARK — Displacement.

It’s the property that keeps boats, and people, floating in a body of water. It suggests that since two objects cannot exist in the same place at the same time, one will inevitably push the other out of the way.

Swimming is the act of controlling that displacement. Sinking occurs when one succumbs to it.

Mikey Flaherty, a swimming instructor and executive director at the Santa Monica nonprofit Swim with Heart, makes sure her students never sink, a goal made more challenging by the population of swimmers that she chooses to teach.

Flaherty and her instructors work with students with special needs, be they physical or cognitive, teaching them the skills they need to conquer the water, to displace rather than being displaced.

It’s an important distinction for children who have so often been displaced themselves, looked at as different or fragile by their peers and the world.

The water is a “magical place,” Flaherty said, one that can act as a great equalizer for children who have difficulties in other areas.

“It levels the platform. Failures on the land are victories in the water,” Flaherty said. “It gives them a sense of independence.”


Flaherty is no stranger to victories in the water.

The accomplished swimmer attended the University of Southern California on an athletic scholarship while studying to get her degree in psychology and childhood development. She was on track to try out for the summer Olympics when a car accident derailed her plans.

Flaherty watched her friends and teammates go on to pursue their futures in the water and she decided to see what else was out there, although she never lost her connection with the pool.

Over the course of the next decade, Flaherty moved to New York where she worked in sales and coached a college swim team.

When she returned to Southern California, she discovered Leaps-n-Boundz, a program for children with disabilities that linked her passion for swimming with the academic interests she pursued while at USC.

With a practiced eye, Flaherty observed the children moving through the water and sought to create individualized programs for them to harness their inherent physical and mental strengths rather than work around their weaknesses.

She developed ways for children without legs to propel themselves, and worked with autistic children to take their natural energy and concentration and focus it on the technical details of their freestyle stroke.

Dan and Jodi Nagy sent their daughter, Tessa, to Leaps-N-Boundz on recommendation from their doctor. Tessa, who’s on the autistic spectrum, could keep herself afloat using the dog paddle stroke but not much more.

Tessa, now 11, doesn’t rely on such rudimentary techniques anymore.

Over the course of her time with Flaherty, the two examined photographs and video of Tessa swimming, identified areas of weakness and strength and set about fixing what needed improvement and practicing what went well.

Improvements came in the form of attainable goals, bite-sized chunks that gave Tessa a taste of success and the confidence to move forward with her swimming.

Now, she excels at the breast stroke, a technically difficult move to master, and can hold her own in a pool outside of the context of Swim with Heart.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when Flaherty left Leaps-N-Boundz to begin Swim with Heart, which got its nonprofit status in 2011, the Nagys followed. Other parents did the same.

“Her style is really what these kids need,” said Jodi Nagy. “It’s clear, concise instruction, and consistency is key. She builds confidence. Once they master a skill, that confidence shines through.”


Experts tout swimming as an ideal exercise because swimmers get all the strength and cardio workout they need with little wear and tear on their joints relative to a “bouncy” activity like running.

For children with special needs, it can mean much more.

Swimming addresses several of the physical concerns raised by spina bifida, a condition that causes varying degrees of lower body paralysis, said Lisa Raman, director of the national resource center at the Spina Bifida Association.

Getting into and out of a wheel chair or onto crutches requires a lot of upper body strength. Swimming provides that and reduces the risk of soft tissue injuries, like a strained rotator cuff or tendonitis.

It’s also helpful for the lungs, which can be put under severe pressure by the disease.

“Most kids with (spina bifida) have scoliosis, a curvature in the spine,” Raman wrote. “Severe scoliosis can put pressure on the lungs, reducing the ability to breathe deeply and maintain good lung pressure.”

Swimming strengthens the diaphragm, a skeletal muscle that plays an important role in breathing, and improves lung function.

It comes down to more than just exercising and making it from one end of the pool to the other in style, but about knowing how to navigate the noisy, crowded environment of the Swim Center, something that can be difficult for a child with autism.

Autistic children have difficulty processing the stimuli in the world around them. Noise can be disconcerting, and concepts like waiting in line to take your turn can be foreign, said Beth Burt, the vice president of the Autism Society of California.

Things people take for granted, like communication, attention to the circumstances and people around you or even a motor skill like alternating your arms for a swim stroke can be real obstacles for children with autism.

Putting children in a situation like a structured swim lesson helps drill those habits they otherwise might struggle with, Burt said.

And then there’s the intangible factor — confidence.

“(Tessa has the) confidence to try things and she’s becoming more outgoing to interact with other people. She’s always very happy when she’s in the water. She has a huge grin on her face all the time,” Dan Nagy said.

Although the program is structured for its students, Swim with Heart gives almost as much back to the parents who drop their children off at the pool.

The advent of a swim program specifically for adults — proceeds help keep the cost of the children’s program low and provide scholarships — lets parents connect more deeply with other parents who share some of their stresses and concerns.

“We’ll talk about our kids and what she’s doing and all that,” said Amy Hopper. “It’s a way to get together because as parents we don’t have time to get together.”

For parents like Dan Nagy, it also gives them hope.

“Most parents share something where you have a tear come to your eye when your child does something new,” Dan Nagy said. “She’s doing things herself, and new things that I’m not there helping her and facilitating her. I can just let her run the show. It’s really exciting because the thing I want for her so much is to one day have the chance to be an independent adult. To take something on and accomplish it herself is a really huge thing to watch.”


Over the years, Swim with Heart has become a victim of its own success.

Its student body grew from a class of seven when Flaherty first launched the program to 53 in 2011, and there are still 10 children on the waiting list.

Now that they’ve passed the point of trying to get by, Flaherty and her board now must look to the future and what direction it should take. It has grants in the works and is raising funds to support its programs and the scholarships to benefit low-income students in the area.

Flaherty doesn’t want to expand the program until she can grow her stable of vetted instructors, people she feels confident will maintain the quality of instruction and care that Swim with Heart has come to represent.

Instead, the program will continue to focus on what it does best — teaching kids to swim and giving them the physical and emotional strength to accomplish and thrive.

“Every human has capabilities, possibilities and dreams,” Flaherty sad.

It’s just about finding a way to make them happen.

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