Waterford’s Stephen Embridge displays his swimming medals from the USA Special Olympics held June 5-12 in Orlando, Fla., including the gold medal in the 50-yard breaststroke. It was Embridge’s third time participating in the national games and his first gold medal on that stage. Embridge, 32, competes locally for Special Olympics Groton. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
East Lyme — Stephen Embridge is so competitive that he challenges his family members each week to a Fitbit walking challenge — “Here you go, Matthew,” he said, sending one such call earlier this week in the direction of to his brother, Matt.
Then, if one of them gets in front of him, Embridge will get up and walk around his room a few times until he’s back on top.
“He needs and loves to be active,” said Cecilia Embridge, Stephen’s mother. “He’d rather be out walking … and beating us. We all have a Fitbit. Everyone in the family has a Fitbit. And every day we are told how far behind we are.”
That’s the skill Stephen Embridge used to compete earlier this summer at the USA Special Olympics Games in Orlando, Florida, representing Connecticut as part of his swimming delegation.
The 32-year-old Embridge won a gold medal in the 50-yard dash in a personal-best 38.3 seconds, beating his nearest competitor by a finger, and he took fourth-place medals in the 50 butterfly (32.6) and as part of the team of the 200 medley relay, in which he swam the breaststroke leg.
Embridge competed June 6-9 at the Rosen Aquatic Center, with athletes staying on grounds at Walt Disney World.
The rest of the family, Cecilia and her husband John and their children Matt, 34, and Lindsay, 29, made the trip to cheer on Stephen, who has been swimming in the Special Olympics – for adults and children with abilities intellectually limited – since 1999.
“Exciting. Very proud,” said Stephen, asked how he felt about winning the best overall breaststroke time at the Games.
“He really ran a lot; he wanted that gold medal,” Cecilia Embridge said. “He went to North Haven twice a week from January to June to practice with the other Team Connecticut swimmers. When he was selected in October, from October to December, it was a times a week. They practiced their relays, they practiced their individual events. He’s a real natural, especially the butterfly and breaststroke. He just got the rhythm of those strokes.”
The swimming gene runs in the family from Cecilia, who swam at Harrison High School in Westchester County, New York, and later at Alfred University.
Cecilia is the assistant girls’ swimming coach at East Lyme High School and a volunteer assistant on the boys’ team. She’s the head coach of the East Lyme Middle School team that was on a run of five straight state championships before being cut short by the pandemic, and, in fact, there’s rarely a time she’s not in the East Lyme pool in some capacity. , also serving on the staff of Nutmeg Aquatics.
Of the three children of Cecilia and John, Stefani is the only one who swam.
“Team sports were a bit more challenging, but since swimming is more of an individual sport, he picked it up right away,” Cecilia Embridge said. “He is the middle child and the other two did not swim at all. He was the one doing the swimming. He’s been competing in the Special Olympics, it’s been 20 years.”
Stephen teases Cecilia by calling her “Coach’s Mom,” but his support network is extensive, from his former coaches with the Southeastern Connecticut YMCA Dragons, whom Cecilia refers to as “fantastic,” to former -Waterford High School swim coach Brett Arnold (Stephen graduated from Waterford in 2009).
His cheering section extends from Groton Special Olympics coordinator Ellen Cicchese, who runs the program where Stephen participates year-round in bowling, floor hockey, basketball, swimming and bocce, to Connecticut’s swim team coaches, James Geanuracos and Heather Minervini.
It goes from his father and sister, who drove him twice a week to distant swim practices in preparation for the national games, to a list of welcoming friends at Waterford High that Stephen still lists fondly: Blaze Adamson, Dwight Tracy, and Maggie Ray.
“He has made many friends. It’s very good for him,” said Cecilia Embridge. “I’m happy that he is doing a sport that he can do for the rest of his life. It’s not something he’s going to age out of.”
It was Stephen’s third Special Olympics USA Games, having competed in 2006 in Ames, Iowa and in 2018 in Seattle. It was his first gold on that stage.
Following Team Connecticut’s appearance this year in Orlando, the athletes were greeted upon their arrival at Tweed Airport in New Haven by their families, as well as Governor Ned Lamont and US Senator Richard Blumenthal.
“We were very nervous, but he came out. He got his gold medal,” said Cecilia. “He really doesn’t show (nerves). He is like a racehorse. You put it on the block and once it goes, ‘beep’, it goes off.”
The Embridges, who hold an annual pass to Disney and frequent the parks, will return to the Magic Kingdom in the coming days as something of a victory lap for Stephen. While last time he was focused on business, this time his attention will be on roller coasters, specifically “Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind”.
Stephen works weekdays at Puffins Restaurant in Groton. He cheers for New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones — “I miss Tom Brady, too,” he said — and NASCAR driver Alex Bowman.
And he walked.
During the COVID-19 shutdown, with all Special Olympics programs in the area on hiatus, Embridge began walking approximately 25,000 steps a day.
Stephen took part in the USA Road Games fitness challenge and finished seventh overall in the country, with more than 4 million steps in 20 weeks. He is often accompanied by his father, John.
“He does it to keep himself in shape.” said Cecilia. “He has a neighborhood circuit, a daily circuit. He goes before work, after work, after dinner, three times a day, about three one-hour walks.”
That makes Stephen Embridge hard to beat in a Fitbit challenge … or anything else, for that matter. He lists his favorite card in the UNO deck as “the draw of two,” stacking a handful of cards for his unsuspecting opponents.
Finally, he has a gold medal to show for his competitive fire.
“He’s wearing it a lot,” said Cecilia Embridge. “He’s special.”