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Competing ‘quite an honor’ for Special Olympian from Butler County

That nurse should see Dannika now.

Born at 24 weeks and measuring nine inches and weighing one pound, those in the medical profession gave Dannika little chance to survive. When her foster mother Mary Swagler drove from Hamilton to Dayton Children’s Hospital to bring Dannika home when she was 5 months old, she was met by a nurse who delivered this alarming advice: “If she dies don’t worry about it. She probably will.”

Swagler, the mother of five, looked at the nurse and responded: “Not on my shift.”

That was 30 years ago, and Swagler’s shift continues today.

Her adopted daughter, Dannika “Nika” Swagler is living proof of the miracles of medicine and the power of prayer.

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Consider that Nika, a person with intellectual disabilities, graduated from Hamilton High School’s Special Education program in 2007, completed Project Search, a post high school work training program at Atrium Medical Center, works full-time in the warehouse at Thyssen Krupp Bilstein, has lived independently in an apartment for five years and three years ago, obtained her driver’s license.

Oh, and one more accomplishment: Nika will participate in the Special Olympics USA Games 2018 in early July in Seattle, Wash. On the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics, Nika and her playing partner, Molly Grimm, will compete in golf. They will play nine holes each day for three days.

“Quite an honor,” Nika said while sitting in her apartment. “I’m honored to be chosen to be part of the group. I’m ready to get out and show them that I can do my best and have fun with it.”

In the Unified Sports Competitions, athletes with and without intellectual disabilities play as a team. This has several outcomes, said Swagler, a longtime coordinator of Butler County Special Olympics. She said athletes work together in perfecting their game, and in the process, natural friendships are created, a greater appreciation for the skills each person brings is developed, and a more inclusive community becomes a more inclusive world.

There are about 300 Special Olympians in Butler County, and Nika, whose favorite golfer is Jordan Spieth, is the only one participating in the USA Games.

Not bad for a girl who wasn’t expected to celebrate her first birthday.

Mary Swagler, 75, and Nika, 30, certainly aren’t your traditional mother and daughter.

Swagler and her husband were married for nearly 19 years when he left. He brought two children into the marriage and they had three more. As her youngest child neared high school graduation, Swagler didn’t embrace the thought of being “an empty nester.” She wasn’t done raising children.

“I was pretty devastated when my husband left, but the Lord opens new doors,” she said. “When you’re open, you don’t know what path you will take.”

So Swagler, a physical therapist in the Hamilton City School District, earned her foster parent license.

Just days after she received her license, the agency called and said there was a newborn — a premature black baby with intellectual disabilities — who needed foster care. Swagler figured the situation would be temporary until Nika’s biological mother was better prepared.

Nika was born on Nov. 1, 1987, at Miami Valley Hospital, then transferred to Dayton Children’s Hospital. She was hospitalized for five months, on oxygen for three years and had seizures until she was 6, her mother said.

“Pretty sickly” is how her mother described Nika.

Finally, when Nika was 3, doctors told her mother: “She’s gonna live. You have crossed the hurdles.”

There was little doubt Swagler was going to adopt Nika. They had been through too many tribulations for their relationship to be temporary.

“It would have killed me to let her go anytime after I got her in the house,” Swagler said.

Swagler said her life would have been “totally different” without Nika. Now the two are planning to move into a downtown Hamilton apartment since they both enjoy the revitalized area.

When Swagler asked Nika about being roommates, Nika said: “I think we are compatible.”

Swagler was reminded of what that nurse said 30 years ago: “If she dies don’t worry about it. She probably will.”

What message would she give that nurse today?

“That’s not our decision. That’s God’s decision.”

With that, Swagler turned to her daughter, who was sitting close, and they shared a special mother/daughter moment.

“She gave me a new purpose in life,” Swagler said.

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