SEATTLE, Wash. — The 2018 Special Olympics USA Games represent quite the full-circle turnaround for 18-year-old Nicholas Kagasoff Laguna.
It’s also an emotional moment of joy for his fathers, Denny Kagasoff and Lawrence Laguna. The child who initially wanted nothing to do with the water has blossomed into a competitive swimmer for Special Olympics Southern California.
“I cried,” Denny said when he first learned of Nicholas’ selection, and reflecting on it still strikes a chord.
“It’s pretty unbelievable to go from a kid that wouldn’t go near water to someone that swims like a fish and loves to be in the water.”
Already at these Games, Nicholas has won a silver medal in the 50-meter butterfly. On deck today is the 4×50 freestyle relay alongside teammates Dawn Albritton, Nicolette Jones and Ethan Tran.
Nicholas also will compete in the 50-meter freestyle today before wrapping up his USA Games experience Friday in the 50-meter backstroke.
“This is a big deal, for sure,” Nicholas said. “They only chose two out of 10 on our (Orange County) team to go to Washington.”
The road to Seattle, however, had its share of twists and turns.
Lawrence, a school psychologist, has a specialized program that caters to children with autism and other intellectual disabilities. He was asked to evaluate Nicholas, who was 12 at the time, and struggling with behavioral issues while at an orphanage.
That turned into the beginning of a new chapter in all of their lives.
“They were able to work with [Nicholas], and the next thing we knew they asked if we would foster him,” Denny recalled.
The transition was not easy, nor was it quick. In the beginning, Nicholas resisted and “everything was no and fear,” Denny said.
In addition, many childhood activities — whether it was riding a bicycle or throwing a ball — were not part of Nicholas’ life before Denny and Lawrence took him into their home.
“We worked with him,” Denny said. “We got him into swimming lessons… and a (Little League) Challenger baseball team.
“Fast-forward to today, he’s a light that shines very bright. Everything is yes and love. He’s a social butterfly and makes everybody feel like a million bucks.”
In the pool, Nicholas developed through lessons once a week for three years. “Repetition” and “consistency” were key, Denny said.
In 2015, the family found Special Olympics Southern California. Nicholas said the exercise is among his favorite aspects, and he’s noticed a difference in his performance in the pool.
“It’s helped me get stronger,” he added.
The social transformation has been evident, too. At regional competitions throughout the year, Nicholas could be found smiling and bursting with charisma. Any behavioral issues have been put well behind him, as he’s often striking conversations with volunteers working the swim venues.
Thanks to Special Olympics, it’s in those moments he’s able to “build relationships and build confidence.”
“It’s such a beautiful atmosphere filled with inclusion,” Denny said.
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