Carson Natali never swam competitively before last year when he joined the Pinkerton Academy swim team as a manager. It was then he was started training in the pool twice each week, like the other swimmers.
At first, Natali, who has autism, took nearly two minutes to swim 50 meters.
But as the season progressed last winter, Pinkerton coach Ed Faszewski noticed much improvement in Natali’s technique. One particular difficult practice, Natali was swimming especially well.
Faszewski challenged Natali. He told the then-sophomore if he could swim the 50-meter freestyle in 55 seconds or less, then the team would be done with practice early.
“As you can imagine he was very apprehensive as he did not want to let his teammates down,” Faszewski explained.
Natali added: “I was kind of nervous. People were cheering for me that I would get it done. I was trying as hard as I can to get everyone out of practice.”
The cheering grew louder as Natali neared the finish.
“When he touched the wall with a 53 second time he had the biggest smile,” Faszewski said.
Natali has become quite an inspiration to his teammates and Faszewski. The 17-year-old Pinkerton junior has excelled in his year and a half with the team. He no longer is manager but instead trains every practice for the entire two hours and swims in meets. He has lowered his times significantly.
The 17-year-old junior swims 50 meters in :41 and the 100 freestyle in 1:32.
“(His teammates) see he’s put in the time and that if you put in the time and you have a good attitude, good things can happen,” Faszewski said. “It’s infectious because the other kids can see the accomplishments, the small steps that he’s taken for the big picture and know they can do the same.”
Natali’s mother Michele Natali explained her son was functioning at the level of a typical baby until 18 months.
“At 18 months old, he stopped doing everything,” Michele said. “He stopped speaking. He stopped forming words. And it wasn’t until we put him in special-ed pre-school and he was diagnosed at the age of 4 that his life started to come back basically.”
The cause of the autism is something the family is unaware of despite Natali being tested.
“It’s not who Carson is,” Michele said. “It’s an obstacle that he has to face on a daily basis.”
Natali said his parents told him about his autism either when he was 12 or 13.
“I didn’t know what it was at the time,” Natali said. “They told me that it’s like when my brain functions different. I think different from other people.”
Natali swims the 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle and 200 medley freestyle relay.
“He’s always wanted to belong on something,” Michele said. “So being part of a sports team has helped him fit in with others his age. I think that’s what’s helped him the most. It has given him a sense of feeling he’s part of something. I think it gives him confidence.”
When Natali was around 4, he wanted no part of going in the water. But when he was 5, the family went on vacation to Myrtle Beach, staying at a hotel with a lazy river.
“He loved it and I told him he had to learn how to swim to go in the lazy river,” Michele said. “And he learned how to do the doggy paddle. That’s how he started. I think my father showed him how to do it once and he taught himself after that.”
Natali then loved to swim while growing up.
“He would just stay there (in pools) all day if he could,” Michele said, adding that her son swam recreationally and never took lessons to learn technique.
Natali did run cross country in middle school. But he was cut from the high school squad. Wanting to be a part of a team, he and his mom wondered what sport would fit him best.
“So a friend of my daughter’s who actually used to swim for (Faszewski) years before, she is the one who said Carson should try out for swimming,” Michele said.
All the rest is history. His improvement allowed him to swim in the final meet of last season.
“I’m pretty good with freestyle and my butterfly this year has improved,” Natali said. “My flip turns have really improved. My diving is getting better — my starts.”
Practicing every day for two hours isn’t easy.
“Of course it can be pretty exhausting day after day but it’s good exercise,” Natali said. “At least I’m not home being fat and lazy.”
Natali not only works hard in the pool but also in the classroom. His studies include practical math, U.S. History, meteorology, health and computer class.
“In some classes I always needed help because there’s some things I basically couldn’t do by myself and figure out by myself,” said Natali who has Aids in his class to help him with work whenever he is struggling with it. “I’m sure there’s people out there in the real world that have autism and they still need help.”
Natali has been on the honor roll every term at Pinkerton.
“He works very diligently,” Michele said. “He will come right home from swimming, take a shower, and then start his homework immediately. And he never has to be asked twice to do anything. ... He is very consciousness of making sure everything is done ahead of time. If the deadline is Friday, he’ll do it by Wednesday.”
Natali also has held a job as a camp counselor at Chester Recreation each of the past two summer, helping mentor younger children.
The junior has set some other goals recently besides cutting swim times and doing well academically. He wants to learn to cook and plans to practice driving after swim season.
“He’s everything you want a swimmer to be,” Faszewski said. He’s on top of what his times are. He’s asking for things he can try to do to improve himself. And he’s not concerned about being in first place all the time.”