Across millennia, across cultures, it’s commonly agreed that water has certain healing properties.

Elaine Fortin knows this better than most.

As an adaptive aquatics instructor, she works with people of all ages living with a variety of disabilities, helping them to swim safely and experience the ways in which water can both support and free the body.

As one of Vermont’s most highly certified adaptive aquatics professionals, Fortin is on a mission to get everyone in the water, regardless of physical limitations. To that end, she’s looking to expand the field of qualified instructors so there’s enough for everyone, across Vermont.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Fortin was at the Swimming Hole in Stowe at work with Colson, a nearly 3-year-old boy with a syndrome that causes low muscle tone among a suite of other issues.

On land, he needs a walker to walk. But in the water his limbs move freely, smiling as Fortin coaxes him around the small pool with a sloped entryway set apart from the pool’s swimming lanes.

More than just helping him on a physical level, however, Irene Chamberlain, Colson's mother, said she also makes him feel comfortable on an emotional level.

“He’s able to choose to go into the water,” she said. “If you just place him in a situation, he does not love it. Colson doesn’t warm up to people very well, but it was no concern with Elaine.”

Charlotte Brynn, the Swimming Hole’s executive director, is also an adaptive aquatics instructor who specializes in working with adults who are dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome or who have suffered a stroke.

“The water releases endorphins and dopamine, which feels good, positive, so there’s the reduced stress and anxiety, and then you’ve got the whole easy on the joints and I think having the range of motion and the relaxation in there is incredible,” Brynn said.

Fortin’s aquatic expertise extends from children through older adults, and she can work with people living with a wide range of disabilities, many of whom drive from hours away to attend sessions with her. She described helping a blind woman navigate the pool while Brynn said they’ve worked with someone suffering from ongoing fatigue and other symptoms that lingered after they contracted COVID-19.

“We’ve got a gentleman that was here just last week, who has very bad cerebral palsy, so his legs and arms are very emaciated,” Fortin said. “The water is the only place where he can move and just do things. He just floats and goes around. But with gravity out of the water, he’s locked. He hasn’t got the strength.”

For those who think the adaptive aquatic instruction might be right for them but uncertain their budget can accommodate it, Green Mountain Adaptive Sports offers subsidies for anyone who qualifies.

Though the organization is more widely recognized for its work helping people with disabilities access Vermont’s ubiquitous winter sports, helping them get in the water and benefit from instruction like Fortin’s is another one of its commitments.

“Elaine, in particular, has really gone a step above and beyond and has invested her time. We’ve supported her in that effort to attend at least a couple of very substantial training clinics,” said Cynthia Needham, president of the Green Mountain Adaptive Sports’s board of directors.

To encourage broader certification among swimming instructors, they’re partnering with the Greater Burlington YMCA to host an adaptive aquatics workshop for swim coaches at the facility from April 30 through May 1.

Updated Feb. 5, 2023, to correct the spelling of Colson's name.

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