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First-year Evergreen swimmer Matt Skimmyhorn, who’s autistic, is thriving in the pool

Freshman grew up loving the water, but never swam competitively until this year

By Will Denner, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 30, 2022, 6:00am
3 Photos
Evergreen High freshman Matt Skimmyhorn, who loves the water but didn't know how to swim, surprised his parents by signing up for the swim team in November.
Evergreen High freshman Matt Skimmyhorn, who loves the water but didn't know how to swim, surprised his parents by signing up for the swim team in November. (James Rexroad for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Robert and Debbie Skimmyhorn were surprised, even a little skeptical, when their son Matt came home several months ago and announced he signed up for the Evergreen High School swim team.

Matt Skimmyhorn is autistic.

Though he’d never swam competitively or received formal coaching, his family recognized how much he loved the water at a young age.

Trips to local recreation centers and waterparks were frequent. It was a must on family vacations to find a hotel with a pool for Matt, his brother Tom and their parents. Last March, the Skimmyhorns upgraded their above-ground pool and promised to set it up once Matt was done with school in June. The day after school finished, Matt muscled the 270-pound box out of the garage toward the backyard, eager to finish the project.

Those are just a few of many examples Debbie and Robert remember.

Joining a swim team, though, was an entirely different, unfamiliar situation.

November 15 was the first day of practice at Cascade Athletic Club. Matt, a freshman at Evergreen High School, and his mom met Doug Lumbard, a longtime swim coach in Evergreen Public Schools. As Matt flailed and kicked in the water, Lumbard also saw how much he enjoyed it. And even though Matt couldn’t swim, he was able to navigate the pool without touching the bottom.

Lumbard understood how Matt’s parents felt. He revealed to Debbie that he has a 33-year-old daughter with non-verbal autism. Lumbard insisted Matt go through with joining the team.

“I welled up,” Lumbard said, describing that moment. “I’m welling up right now. It’s very emotional. I said, ‘Absolutely, we can make this work.’ ”

Just a couple months later, Matt has found a consistent routine and made huge strides in the pool. As the only swimmer representing Evergreen, Matt practices and competes with a JV co-op team of other schools in the district — Heritage, Mountain View and Union. He gets lots of one-on-one instruction with Tyler Hunt, a 2018 Union High graduate who joined the coaching staff this season.

His parents said he’s more awake, more alert and has more energy around the house since joining the team.

“From the moment he comes home and says, ‘I’m signed up for swim team,’ and my wife and I are looking at each other like, ‘he can’t do the freestyle, he can’t do any strokes, he’s never been in an environment where he was coached before,’ ” Robert Skimmyhorn said. “To now, working out for an hour, swimming in the pool and loving every minute of it.”

Robert usually drops Matt off at early-morning JV team practices on his way to work. While many kids would prefer to sleep in rather than wake up for a 5:45 a.m. practice before school, Matt never complains. He thrives on it.

“For some reason,” Matt said, “I like morning practices better.”

Toward the end of one recent practice, Robert snuck in to check in on the progress his son was making. Having served in the U.S. Navy, Robert is an adept swimmer. But when he saw Matt execute a flip turn off the wall, he realized his son likely had already supplanted his own skill level in a short time.

“It blows my mind how far he’s come,” Robert said. “It’s really awesome to see as a father.”

Matt competes in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle, as well as the 100 backstroke. He said the latter is his preferred event.

“It was good,” Matt said of his early impressions swimming on the team. “One thing I do know is we do warmups non-stop.”

But a rigorous schedule can also start to feel like a grind for any swimmer. Matt hit a wall about a month into the season and asked coaches to take a break from swimming.

The timing coincided with winter break, when snow and icy roads made it difficult for swimmers to get to morning practices. While JV practices were called off, the varsity team still practiced in the evening.

“You could see it in his eyes,” Hunt said. “He kept asking if he could skip practice so he could take a break.”

Hunt wasn’t around that week, assuming only varsity swimmers would be in attendance. Upon returning the following week, he learned Matt practiced with the varsity team for the entire stretch.

Robert later admitted that, as parents new to the swim team, they assumed everyone was expected to attend the evening practices, and urged Matt to go. Still, Hunt was impressed with the young swimmer going above and beyond when he appeared to be burning out.

“I never talked to him about it, I was just like, I’m proud of him for that and I appreciated it,” Hunt said.

Teammates gain too

The “team” aspect of swimming is something Matt is still getting used to. While he’s swimming events at meets, his teammates cheer him on from the other end of the pool. Coaches believe those moments are helping him push harder and improve his skills even more.

“It makes me feel great,” Matt said.

The words of encouragement go both ways. At the conclusion of a recent evening practice, Matt tells his teammates, ‘Good job guys,’ when they get out of the pool, and as more swimmers walk toward the locker room, Matt nonchalantly lowers his head and brings his hands together, applauding their efforts.

“It’s just team building,” Hunt said. “Even though you’re probably only going to see these people during swim season, getting to know them, being sort of a second family almost in a way, and he’s slowly getting more used to that. I think ultimately that’s a big factor that’s going to help in life after all this.”

What Matt’s presence does for his fellow teammates, Lumbard said, is also important.

“Being around someone with a disability and having to bring him into their team, accept him and communicate with him, I think, has been invaluable. Because it opens their eyes to what’s really important,” Lumbard said. “It’s not always about who’s the fastest swimmer; it’s more about who’s giving it 110 percent, or who’s putting it out on the line and really giving it for the team. I think Matt really helps the rest of the guys understand how to be human and how to be loving in a holistic way.”

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Matt and his teammates have one final regular-season meet on Wednesday at Kelso, followed by districts and the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association’s 3A state championships. Coaches are hoping to take Matt to state for two adaptive events held for swimmers with special needs, the 50 free and 50 back.

“We are very proud of our son,” Debbie added. “The fact that he’s out there swimming at 6 a.m. Every. Single. Day. Grinding it out. And that he’s the only kid from Evergreen — the entire school — that is willing to put in the time and effort … just makes us even prouder of him.”