While many teenagers spend their summer vacation sprawled on the couch watching Netflix, it’s a summer of sunscreen and protein shakes for Fiona Buck, a local para-athlete who swims like there’s no tomorrow.
Buck, 18, grabbed a global spotlight by setting three world records at an international swim competition for para-athletes in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in June. Her journey to success, however, takes root in Davis’ swim and special-needs communities.
Early in her life, Buck was diagnosed with a global development delay that included delayed oral language development and hypotonia, or low muscle tone. Additionally, she also deals with epilepsy, a language disorder (apraxia of speech) and visual difficulties that affect her depth perception and peripheral vision.
Buck was born on a frigid January day in Terrance, Canada. The Buck family owned a small home in Masset, where the nearest hospital was a ferry ride and several hours of driving away. When this distance became too challenging to accommodate Buck’s emerging disabilities, her family knew it was time to move.
In 2000, her father, Peter, found work in Sacramento and the family settled into Davis and the expansive special-needs community within it.
A place to call home
Young Fiona dove headfirst into Davis’ swim community. During the family’s first summer in the area, her mother, Seana Burke, arranged for Fiona to take swimming lessons through the SummerDarts. The SummerDarts is a program that teaches youngsters a variety of swim skills and water fitness.
“We could tell right away that Fiona was a fish,” said Burke, smiling, “She loves to be in water; it’s the most comfortable element for her.” Even though she was only 5 years old, Fiona instantly took to the water.
Three years later, Fiona joined Team Davis, a network of families with special-needs children.
“One of the missions of Team Davis is inclusion,” said Kelly McDonald, a swim coach with Team Davis. “Our main focus is to show how our guys bring value to the community,” she said.
Team Davis puts on activities for all ages ranging from athletics to work skills programs to quarterly dances, or “Kokomos.”
Buck’s active participation with the organization includes swimming as well as playing softball, soccer and running. “My friend is gonna make me play golf,” she said, rolling her eyes.
McDonald, who has coached Buck since she joined Team Davis, has watched her grow.
“One of the coolest things about coaching the kids that are Fiona’s age is that I’ve watched them grow up,” said McDonald, “…to see them getting better not just in sports, but in life.”
At Team Davis, members with a wide spectrum of abilities are always encouraged to participate. McDonald said the swimmers range from “world-class to walking in the pool.”
Through Team Davis, Buck was able to take her first steps toward competitive swimming. She began competing in Special Olympics Northern California five years ago. Special Olympics gives para-athletes the opportunity to compete at the same standards that Olympic athletes are held to. The officiators used at the events are the same as those at national competitions, McDonald explained.
The Summer Games, which took place June 27-29 in Davis, are one of the most anticipated Special Olympics events of the year. Swimmers high-five the swimmer in the lane next to them, even if they are on opposing teams, McDonald said.
“It’s just about being here, doing this, enjoying people and challenging themselves,” the coach said. “We stress sportsmanship and camaraderie more than anything else.”
Camaraderie wasn’t the only thing Buck gained this year, however. After the most recent Summer Games, she added four bright, gold medals to her display at home.
Sharpening her competitive edge
The 2013 Summer Games opened the doors to new competition for Buck. A fellow parent at the Summer Games noticed that Buck was making times that qualified her for competitions through the International Paralympic Committee. This qualification brought her to a regional meet in Santa Clara last September.
Buck’s successes there led to a series of victories that had her racing in Edmonton, Canada, for the CanAm Games and across the country to Miami for the U.S. Paralympics Swimming Nationals.
In Miami, Buck tore through her events, taking up to 10 seconds off of her earlier times and winning a gold medal in the 200-meter backstroke. After nationals, Buck was ranked No. 2 in the United States in the S14 classification.
Following the competition in Miami, Buck was hand-selected for the U.S. Paralympic swim team. Made up of a total of 10 athletes, the team competed in the Guayaquil Open in Ecuador on June 6-8.
At Guayaquil, Buck faced new competition against international para-athletes.
“Canada, Australia, South Africa, England, France and Sweden have been investing in their Paralympians for a long time,” Burke said.
These countries fund training facilities and cover expenses for their para-athletes. Burke wasn’t sure how the U.S. team would match up against them in the races.
But when the races came, Buck excelled. Competing on a relay team, she not only won gold but also set three world records in the 400-meter medley relay, 400-meter freestyle relay and 200-meter relay.
Beyond their victories in the water, traveling to Guayaquil helped the U.S. team members form close friendships and experience unprecedented independence, according to Burke.
“(The team) wanted to do team bonding. … It was really serious, no moms allowed,” she joked. Some of the athletes even traveled to the competition independently.
Buck is training for the next CanAm Games that take place this winter. In the meantime, she continues her training and participation with Team Davis, the AquaMonsters and the Davis High School swim team.
Though the walls of her room are decorated with what Buck describes as “thousands” of medals and ribbons, mostly gold, a blue and white striped medal with white golden bands declaring in a thick font “Guayaquil” is her favorite.