The top swimmers on the Gloversville/Mayfield Sea Dragons have stepped to the blocks at pools around the state — but none as large as the Great Sacandaga Lake. And never for a better cause.
The “Swim for Autism,” set for Aug. 7, was organized by 15-year-old Mary-Kate Poulin, who decided conquering the lake would kill two birds with one stone: It would shut her father up and it will raise money for the Autism Speaks Foundation, the leading fundraising and advocacy group in the field.
Poulin, a junior in the fall and the school record-holder in the 200-meter freestyle and 100-meter backstroke, was living with the taunts of her father, Northville attorney Michael “Chainsaw” Poulin. “You guys think you can swim; let’s see you swim across the lake,” he kept saying.
She took him up on that and he will be getting up early as a result.
At 6 a.m. Aug. 7, Michael Poulin will be driving a boat flanking the swimmers on one side, while his brother, Denny Poulin, operates a personal watercraft on the other.
Mary-Kate will be joined in the big pool by record-holding Sea Dragon teammates Justine and Jade Woodend of Mayfield and Chris Mosconi of Gloversville. The Woodend sisters are the twin daughters of Rachel Woodend of Mayfield and Mosconi is the son of Marc and Toni Mosconi of Gloversville.
The Woodends, who hold four individual school records between them and a number on a relay team that included Mary-Kate Poulin, graduated in June and plan to swim at Hartwick College in the fall.
Mosconi, a senior in the fall, holds the school record in the 200 individual medley and was also on record-setting relay teams.
“They’re really excited,” Poulin said of her lake crew. “I’m anxious, but I’ve been training for it,” she said of the fundraiser, which starts at Northampton State Campsite and concludes on the eastern shore. The distance is about two miles.
Choosing autism as her cause was easy for Poulin. “It’s pretty close to my heart,” she said, noting her younger brother, Michael, has Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum.
In a news release prepared to promote the swim, Poulin elaborated on her motivation.
“Everyone hears the word autism all of the time, but no one knows what it means ... it’s more common than you think and the kids just need acceptance for who they are ... it’s not their fault their brains are wired differently,” she said.
In that same news release, she said, “many parents are always telling me I need to do something to help others or make a difference ... swimming is what I love most, so I’m hoping my efforts in the water make a difference for those who have autism.”
Poulin’s mother, Karen Poulin, an English teacher at Gloversville High School, said her daughter announced this project several weeks ago.
“I’m on her all the time that you need to do something to help people,” Karen Poulin said.
“Michael’s concern is keeping them safe,” she said. A group of four is small enough that flanking boats should be able to protect them, she said.
With the focus of the swim on fundraising, Karen Poulin said the swimmers decided, “we have to do something challenging, or who cares.”
“She’s always had high goals for herself,” her mother said of Mary-Kate, who is ranked No. 1 in her class academically.
Poulin and Jade Woodend are both rehabbing from surgeries — a labrum repair for Poulin and a knee operation for Woodend.
Autism Speaks immediately embraced the Sacandaga project, sending the swimmers caps with the organization logo.
“We think it’s phenomenal that they would do something so incredible for the cause,” said Lara Collazo, endurance program manager at Autism Speaks. “We applaud their effort,” she said, emphasizing that in fundraising, “every little bit counts.”
Collazo, who has gotten to know the Poulins, said Mary-Kate has “lived with autism all of her life. [The swim is] a great way for her to educate others.”
Autism Speaks raises money in four categories, she said, giving priority to scientific research but also funding awareness, advocacy and family service programs. It operates globally, but concentrates on the United States and has offices in New York City, Princeton, N.J., and Los Angeles.
Those considering a donation have been asked to connect to Mary-Kate’s special email address, firstname.lastname@example.org.