Grace Boucher has been shy most of her life, but now she is a “Barracuda” when it comes time to dive in to help her friends and teammates.

Boucher is competing today with 16 other teammates at the Special Olympics State Championship at Illinois State University as a member of the YWCA Barracudas Swim Team. She has been on the team for two years.

“It means a lot to me,” said Boucher, 13, of Mackinaw. “When I first started swimming, when I was little, I used to do swimming, but now I learned that it can help me — give me more strength and happiness.

“It’s my dream just to learn. All you have to do is learn the right thing to do. I love doing it and I want to spend the rest of my life doing it.”

The YWCA Adaptive Aquatics/Special Olympics program has 35 students that are ages 3 to 60 from around Tazewell County. Team members must be 8 years old to compete in the Special Olympics.

Grace’s mother, Sharon Boucher, says the program has worked wonders for her daughter. Grace placed well last year and she said this year, “I want to take home the gold.” The program has taught Grace to win and lose well.

“(Grace) is Mosaic Down Syndrome, so her maturity level is quite low,” said her mother. “She feels more comfortable here and they push them at their own speed.

“She’s a very competitive little girl, but she doesn’t know how to channel that. She’s learning to win and lose. I think she just feels more comfortable in this verses a real team. Just to watch all of the athletes compete — they’re having too much fun. Just to watch all of the families and the athletes — they’re all just happy to be there. It’s just a big happy family. The kids don’t know a stranger there. The camaraderie is just amazing. I think she feels she belongs, rather than just watching the other kids play sports and stuff. She’s able to be competitive in her own way.”

Bethany Medlin, head coach of the program since 1998, said the program moves the participants at a pace they are comfortable. The coaches start small and in beginning classes toward an advanced program. She said some competitors on the Specials Olympics team have been with the program since the 1960s.

“The overall adaptive aquatics program is pretty important because a lot of our swimmers wouldn’t have the opportunity to be exposed to the water or learn how to swim in a typical setting,” said Medlin. “There are not many programs that I know of in the area for adults with disabilities, and obviously, our adults wouldn’t feel comfortable taking swim lessons with kids.

“For the younger swimmers, some of them have either sensory, physical or behavioral challenges where a typical swim program would be very difficult for them to participate.”

The program is funded through YWCA fundraisers and the United Way of Pekin, the Pekin AMBUCS and the Knights of Columbus and private donations.

Follow Sharon Woods Harris at Twitter.com/sharrispekin