At least once a week, eight-year-old Shea Mathewson can be found at Brown University practicing with the Men’s Water Polo team. Shea leads the team in stretches, joins the athletes for yoga and cheers on the team during games.
“I’ll help Coach JJ by giving the boys weights or weighted belts, water bottles and goggles,” said Shea.
Shea, a Cranston resident with cystic fibrosis, is a member of Team IMPACT – a national non-profit organization that’s developed a multi-year program that matches children facing serious illness and disability with college athletic teams across the country. Based on a clinical model, Team IMPACT guides a symbiotic relationship between teams and children focused on socialization, empowerment and resilience.
Shea has been partnered with the Men’s Water Polo team for the past year. Since the pandemic had put a hold on certain events, the team held an official signing for Shea – making him an official member of the team through Team IMPACT – on Sept. 10.
“We joked with our family that though many of us have college degrees he’s our first Ivy Leaguer,” said Jesse, Shea’s mom.
Shea is number 16 on the team and shared that his parents, Jesse and Jimmy, his younger brother, Brett, and his grandmother were at the signing; he added that he wished his two bunnies and cat were able to come.
Athletes from the Men’s and Women’s teams dressed in their water polo attire for the event and athletes who graduated last year returned for the signing. Shea received a Brown University water polo t-shirt with his name and number on it, a sweatshirt, wristband, robe, swim cap and participated in pre-game ceremonies for the team’s home game that day.
"We have been waiting for this for a while, with Covid interrupting some stuff, it was a really special day," said Felix Mercado, Head Coaching Chair for Water Polo. "My assistant coach JJ Addison did a great job of setting everything up. Having him do the signing and having him be a part of the introductions, I am super happy for Shea and everyone involved that we were able to make this happen."
Connected with the team because of his love for swimming, Shea came in not knowing much about water polo; the 23-membered team and two coaches have helped him learn to be a better, stronger swimmer.
Mercado said Shea came to practice with a smile on his face; he’s the first to jump in the pool and the first to grab the balls.
“We want him here as long as he wants to be here,” Mercado said.
Shea has gotten to know the players – both athletes on the men’s and women’s teams – and coaches. Some of the players have sent Shea postcards over the summer. Shea even created a Spotify playlist of pump-up songs for the team, and Jesse said the coaches have asked what other activities Shea has so the team can come and support him.
Jesse said when Shea arrives at the pool, “He just leaves us [Jesse and Jimmy] and goes and hangs with the team. He’s in his element….They just take him in as their own.”
Jesse said the family first heard of Team IMPACT at a Great Strides Cystic Fibrosis walk. Shea, who had been four years old at the time, was just shy of the age requirement, but Jesse left her name and was called six months later. Team IMPACT asked about Shea’s interests, what was important for his health, what the family would like to see out of a partnership and where Shea would have the most fun. Jesse expressed how much Shea liked swimming which led to being teamed with Brown University.
“They [Men’s Water Polo team] were really flexible and amazing with us,” Jesse said. “He sits with the team during the games and they give him high fives in and out of the water – it’s really awesome.”
Team IMPACT also provides the family with a case manager who regularly contacts the family to make sure the partnership is going well and Shea is having fun.
"Team IMPACT is excited to see Shea officially join the Brown Bears," said Danielle Hardee, Regional Director of Programs, Northeast at Team IMPACT. "We are proud to work alongside Brown University, their athletic department and coaching staff to create lifelong bonds and life-changing outcomes between student-athletes and their Team IMPACT teammates."
Brown University has worked with Team IMPACT for the past eight years, matching 13 children with different sports.
Shea’s favorite swim stroke is freestyle, and he recently passed the deep end test at the swim club his family belongs to.
“I can tread for two minutes,” Shea said proudly.
Shea is a third grader at The Croft School in Providence. While snack time, recess and lunch make it at the top of his list for favorite things about school, the academic subject he enjoys the most is math. Shea is also a wolf scout, soccer player and enjoys jumping on the trampoline.
When he isn’t swimming with athletes in the pool, he’s cheering them on to watch them win.
Rhode Island universities and colleges partnering with Team IMPACT include Brown University (Co-ed track and Field, Men’s Lacrosse, Women’s Lacrosse and Men’s Water Polo), Johnson and Wales University (Baseball), Providence College (Men’s Basketball, Men’s Soccer, Men’s Swimming, Women’s Dance and Women’s Soccer), and the University of Rhode Island (Ramettes).
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