Special Olympics athlete attempts 80-mile paddleboard journey

Written by:  Gary Curreri, Sun Sentinel Correspondent

Layla Crehan

Pembroke Pines’ Layla Crehan, 16, paddles out to the ocean. She is a champion Special Olympics athlete in eight sports.  (Cate Crehan/Courtesy)

Layla Crehan has enjoyed a six-year career in Special Olympics and recently attempted an 80-mile paddleboard event to raise money for cystic fibrosis. 

While inclement weather prevented her from accomplishing the complete distance, the Pembroke Pines teenager has still accomplished a lot.  The 16-year-old Crehan hoped to paddleboard from Bimini in the Bahamas to Lake Worth on a stand up paddleboard with the crossing for cystic fibrosis.

The crossing was expected to last anywhere from 15 to 18 hours. She chose the charity because her friend battles cystic fibrosis every day.  “My dream was to get to experience the event, and my dream came true,” said Crehan, who has autism, ADHD and anxiety disorder. “I planned to finish the event, but the sea had other plans for me.”

Crehan would have been the first female with autism to make the crossing. She trained with world record holder Victoria Burgess to prepare.

“I wanted to prove to myself and do the crossing,” Crehan said. “I hoped to inspire others.”

“She paddled approximately 20 miles I believe in three hours, but the conditions were very dangerous, 4- to 6-feet waves,” said her mother Cate. “I had to pull her after that. We still don’t even have her board. It got damaged and is being repaired. The event ended up canceling.

“A lot of people got seasick from the intensity of the water,” she said. “Piper’s Angels Foundation gave her the Ocean Magic Award for Most Inspirational Paddler after the crossing was over. The day after the crossing, she was invited to do it next year with two different teams.”

Crehan competes in eight different sports for the Special Olympics. She said she loves competing and traveling but says the best part of Special Olympics is making friends and finding a group of people she feels comfortable with.  Crehan has won multiple Special Olympics gold medals in swimming and is also a Sunshine State Games gold medalist in stand up paddle.

“I love Special Olympics Florida because I love to challenge myself, try new things and I love competing and training with my friends and awesome coaches,” she said. “There are so many awesome sports to choose from.

“It has helped me work through my fears, it helps me be more confident and a lot of the sports help me with my anxiety,” she said. “I’ve also made a lot of friends who I love. Special Olympics Florida makes me feel included and accepted. It also makes me feel like I can do anything I put my mind to.”

Competing in Special Olympics has also enabled her to travel. Crehan attends Divine Academy, a school for students with special needs, and she will enter the 11th grade in the fall. She said her medals and ribbons are too numerous to count.

“I’ve competed in so many places in Florida, like Sarasota, Vero Beach, Cocoa Beach, Sebastian, Eustis and Orlando for the Special Olympics Florida State Summer Games at ESPN Wide World of Sports, which is so much fun,” Crehan said. “But my favorite of all is Blowing Rock, North Carolina for alpine skiing. My dream is to one day go to Special Olympics World Games in other countries for swimming and skiing.”

She also paints, sketches, crafts, weaves and sells her artwork to help pay for her paddleboards.  After finding a board she wanted, Crehan made a video telling her story and sold her artwork on her Facebook art page, Dancing Red Panda. Her artwork includes handmade chokers, wine glass charms and canvas paintings.

“So many people bought my art I was able to buy that used board in 24 hours,” she said.

Crehan started Special Olympics at age 10 when she began competing on a 25-meter swim team. She is also a competitive racer in paddleboarding in rivers and lakes and is the Junior Olympics women’s champion for the 15-19 age group.

“I constantly search for words that are bigger than proud because the hurdles she has had to jump to do what she does amazes me,” Cate Crehan said. “Every day, she puts in so much work, it is unbelievable.

“She takes everything so seriously,” she said. “She practices hard and she is a great sportsman. My heart flows every time I see her doing her sport.

“We really had no idea how involved and how competitive Special Olympics was when we started,” Cate Crehan said. “We didn’t know anything about travel; we just thought it was a way for kids to get exercise and when we started competing on the 25-meter team, it opened up a whole new world for her and she started setting goals for herself.  “She quickly moved to the 50-meter team where she learned all of the strokes and now her butterfly is her best stroke.”

Layla Crehan

Layla Crehan competes in track and field and swimming. (Cate Crehan/Courtesy)

Her next big event is the Sallarulo’s Race For Champions, an inclusive 5K run/walk that typically takes place each year on the campus of Nova Southeastern University at 8 a.m. Saturday, November 6. Visit champions5k.org.

The race was founded by Paul Sallarulo, whose relationship with Special Olympics began over 45 years ago as a volunteer in high school. It deepened when Paul’s son, Patrick, began participating as an athlete at age 8.

For over two decades Patrick, now 28, has trained and competed in swimming, bocce, bowling and skiing. He has traveled throughout Florida and the U.S., building lifelong friendships and memories.