Mexico’s 'Special Mermaids' (Sirenas Especiales) is a synchronised swimming team uniquely for people with Down Syndrome. Team members train in a pool in Mexico City and regularly take part in swim meets in at home and internationally. The team hope that hey are raising awareness about Down Syndrome and changing how it is viewed in Mexico.

Former professional synchronised swimmer Paloma Torres first came up with the idea for the "Special Mermaids" (Sirenas Especiales) when she was studying educational psychology about ten years ago.

Photo posted on the "Sirenas Especiales" Facebook page.

"Their work is applauded"

I wanted to show that this sport could have positive cognitive effects on vulnerable people, like people with Down Syndrome.

After a six-month internship at a school for children with Down Syndrome, I wrote my university thesis on this topic. When I finished my studies, I kept working on the idea. I knew that people with Down Syndrome are often very creative and flexible, which is very important in synchronised swimming! [Editor’s note: so after her studies, Torres began training girls with Down Syndrome to help them learn this sport.]
 
"One pool refused entry to my swimmers, saying that they might contaminate other swimmers!"

I had to find a swimming pool where we could organise regular practices. At first, I couldn’t find anywhere. One pool even refused entry to my swimmers, saying that they might contaminate other swimmers! It was really disheartening at first -- both for me and for the girls’ parents.

Finally, I found the Alberca Olímpica Francisco Márquez pool, which is located in southern Mexico City. I’ve been training the group there since 2011.


Photo posted on the "Sirenas Especiales" Facebook page.
 

Currently, I’m training 20 athletes, between the ages of 14 and 30. There are 17 girls in the group and three boys. Eighteen of my swimmers have Down Syndrome, one has microcephaly [Editor’s note: One symptom of microcephaly is having a much smaller head than usual], and another has hearing problems. Some of them have been in the group since it started in 2011.


Paloma Torres sent the France 24 Observers team this video of a swimming practice. 
 

We have practice four times a week. The main difference is that our athletes can’t practice as much as other athletes, but, other than that, it is the same sport.

They can’t swim quite as many kilometres or do as many exercises because they get tired quickly, especially because many of them are overweight and some have had heart operations [Editor’s note: Many people with Down Syndrome have heart problems].

We also have to be quite careful about their necks [Editor’s note: People with Down Syndrome sometimes have unstable vertebrae because the ligaments holding the first few in place can be quite loose, which can sometimes put pressure on the spinal cord].


Paloma Torres sent the France 24 Observers team this video of a swimming practice.
 

This sport helps participants improve their concentration and memory.

However, most importantly, this activity helps them integrate socially. They participate regularly in competitions both nationally and internationally, which sometimes include swimmers without disabilities. Our team has won about 50 medals. They become more social and their work is applauded. It’s also important for their families because some of them don’t think that these girls will make something of their lives.


Photo posted on the "Sirenas Especiales" Facebook page.
 

In general, the way that people with disabilities are viewed has been changing in Mexico over the past few years. For example, in the past, children with disabilities were often hidden. Now they go to normal schools where they follow a special curriculum.


Photo posted on the "Sirenas Especiales" Facebook page.
 

Eight years of synchronised swimming

Our team also spoke with 29-year-old Rocío Santos Hernández, one of the "Special Mermards" ("Sirenas Especiales") trained by Torres.

I started synchronised swimming with the group eight years ago because I like music and dance. I love the movements that we do with our arms and legs, like the splits!


Down Syndrome, also known as trisomy 21, is the result of a genetic anomaly -- the presence of a third chromosome 21. It is usually associated with a mild to moderate intellectual disability.
 


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Article by Chloé Lauvergnier (@clauvergnier).