Moorestown High School freshman Luca Ventrella will compete with the Marlins swim team in Special Olympics New Jersey Summer Games this weekend at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ).
Having advanced in two individual and two medley races, Ventrella’s main strokes are freestyle and butterfly, but he has four years of experience participating in swim meets. His mother Nicole recalled how Luca joined the Marlins.
“ … There was a group of people who recognized that he could swim well, so he started as an individual entry into the Special Olympics through a different network,” she said. “ … The year before COVID, he joined the Marlins, and that was the beginning of this competition on a team versus being an individual entry (in) (the) Special Olympics.”
Luca practices with the Marlins once a week at the Mount Laurel YMCA and trains individually at the Betty and Milton Katz Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Cherry Hill. Although he’s been able to practice in person, this weekend will mark the first time Special Olympics New Jersey has hosted summer games in three years because of COVID.
Nicole praised TCNJ’s efforts to go above and beyond for all athletes competing in the event.
“The campus has just turned into everything for the Special Olympics,” she noted. “It’s a really special experience, because regardless of what the competition is, the crowd really brings the cheers to all the athletes.”
Luca moved from Spain to the U.S. with his family when he was 6, and his mother explained how the sport came easily to him.
“His aptitude for swimming was something that we caught on to at a very young age,” she remembered. “When other developments were not as quick, this was something he totally got … and he just continued with the quickness of the learning and the loving of being near and in the water.”
“It has always calmed him,” Nicole added, “and it’s something that when we moved here, we realized we had to get him back in quite quickly.”
She described the preparation Luca and his teammates go through to compete in the Special Olympics.
“ … It’s an intense training to make sure that you’re working on the technique, you’re shaving off your time, you’re working on dives, working on transitions,” she explained. “All the things that you’re doing throughout the year, but then you’re starting to want to decrease those times because (of) the camaraderie of knowing that there is something on the line.”
Special Olympics New Jersey is described as a nonprofit dedicated to bringing pride into the lives of all involved. Its mission is to provide sports training and athletic competition to children and adults with intellectual disabilities, and Nicole emphasized how that has benefitted Luca.
“As a parent, I think that any aspect of sports that gets your child involved, especially something like the Special Olympics … it’s great that this is still very local and has the place for him to learn and grow and make friends, and it’s just a great experience for all the kids that participate.”
By training and competing in events such as Special Olympics New Jersey Summer Games, Luca and his teammates can improve different techniques.
“They’re there to work together,” Nicole said. “ … There’s a skill set that’s being constantly improved, which is good for mental stimulation as well as individual growth, because you’re literally competing against yourself every week to just be better at that time to touch the wall.”
Luca is excited to see people support his team.
“I like the crowd cheering everyone on,” he said. “They make the event fun. I missed this part during COVID, because we were not able to compete in person.”