SOUTH PORTLAND — Ian McKay zipped into his black wet suit, pulled on a gray swimming cap and approached the water’s edge at Willard Beach.

This was to be a practice swim, a few days before McKay, 24, enters the water on Peaks Island and crosses Casco Bay in the 34th annual YMCA Peaks to Portland 2.4-mile Swim.

He extended a hand.

“I’m Ian,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”

After a minute or two of chatter about his swimming background and his reason for taking part in Saturday’s open-water event, McKay felt a need to share something.

“I had frozen pizza today,” he said. “Frozen pizza is better.”

A discussion on toppings ensued, with Ian’s mom, Shirley Haynes, offering an explanation for three-cheese pizza: “They use different kinds of cheese to give it a unique flavor.”

Her son nodded his head and turned his attention to his gray flip-flops, whose soles read “Sink or Swim.”

McKay, who has autism, will give this year’s Peaks to Portland race a unique flavor. He will be the first swimmer with autism to undertake the arduous journey from island to mainland since the YMCA of Southern Maine revived the race in 1982.

Haynes said her son falls in the middle range of the spectrum for autism, a complex disorder that interferes with the ability to communicate with and relate to others.

Terry Swain, aquatics director at the Y, recalled only one other special-needs Peaks to Portland swimmer, about three years ago. “He did fine,” Swain said. “I can’t remember now what his situation was. It wasn’t autism. It was more of a physical thing.”

The Y is big on inclusion. The whole reason for the event, after all, is to raise money so kids at all four branches (Freeport, Portland, Biddeford and New Gloucester) can have swim lessons or take part in aquatics classes regardless of their ability to pay. Last year’s race raised more than $75,000 thanks to a combination of corporate and individual sponsorships.

The field of 400 filled in less than a day when registration opened in February. Numbers had dwindled until a few years ago the Y relaxed the mile-swim requirement from 30 to 40 minutes.

“We are about serving all people,” said Helen Brena, chief executive officer of the YMCA of Southern Maine. “We upped the (qualifying) time, and our registration flourished after that.”

More swimmers with less experience prompted the Y to provide a training program geared toward those attempting to cross Casco Bay for the first time. Not only is yardage emphasized, but rookies are schooled in choosing a wetsuit and taken by Swain into the ocean off East End Beach to get familiar with landmarks on Munjoy Hill, the B&M Baked Beans factory smokestack, and to get them comfortable around the sailboats and mooring balls.

McKay went out last week with a group led by Swain.

“He’s fun,” she said. “He’s got high energy so that will help keep him warm.”

McKay swims five to six times a week at the Y. In addition to frozen pizza, he loves people, animals and mowing the lawn. He has a neuromuscular disorder as well as autism and the doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital encourage him to stay active.

Through Work Opportunities Unlimited, he volunteers 20 hours a week for nonprofit agencies. He helps set tables for meals at nursing homes, does grocery shopping for the homebound, plays games with residents of retirement communities, stocks the pantry at Wayside Kitchen, sorts donated clothing at Preble Street, and all with a cheery disposition.

“Great sense of humor and incredible work ethic,” said Rob Crockett, a career resource specialist at Work Opportunities. “He’s always eager to try new things. There’s sometimes a learning curve of processing and understanding the task at hand, but he’s very capable.”

At South Portland High, McKay was on the swim team. He started going to the Portland Y in January, doing laps and a weekly aquatic exercise class. A lifeguard asked Haynes if her son had signed to swim the Peaks to Portland.

“It hadn’t crossed my mind,” she said. “Ian was there and he said, ‘This has been my dream since high school.’ And I never knew this.”

McKay, whose technique is something Swain calls the “lifeguard approach” because his head remains upright and out of the water while he swims, did a one-mile time trial. Needing 40 minutes or faster, he clocked in at 34.

Lee McKay, his father, was initially hesitant.

“I thought it was an awfully long ways,” he said. “I was concerned about that distance in the water, but he seems real determined to do it. So we’ll see if it happens. I mean, we’re going to start.”

In the waters off Willard Beach, Lee McKay paddled a green canoe and Haynes a yellow kayak as their son swam in between, parallel to the beach with Peaks visible behind House Island. Halyards clinked against sailboat masts in the light breeze. An occasional squawk escaped from a passing gull. Muffled voices of small children floated from the beach. The dull roar of distant motorboats thrummed from the mouth of Portland Harbor.

Last week, Ian went out for a training swim at Willard with his first home-based teacher, Rose Pomerleau of Saco, who will do her first ocean race in next weekend’s Tri for A Cure triathlon. He was 4 when she began working with him, and knows of his sense of humor as well as his gumption.

“He’s always been driven, particularly when he wants to learn something,” said Pomerleau, 52. “And when he doesn’t, he’s just as driven.”

Now a special education teacher in Scarborough, Pomerleau helped Ian make the transition to public school and has kept in touch over the years. She understands his challenges with communication and abstract thought, and appreciates his determination and good nature.

“It was fascinating swimming with him the other night,” she said. “I was like, ‘It’s cold!’ And he was like, ‘You can do it!’ It was a very full-circle moment for me.”

 


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