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USA Swimming therapy dog retires, named honorary member of the team – The Washington Post

The swimmers requested therapy dogs to minimize their anxiety at the Olympic Trials.
USA Swimming athletes had one special request for the Olympic trials: dogs. As many pups as possible.
“So many people find animals as a calming essence,” said Emily Klueh, manager of mental health and emotional wellness for USA Swimming. “That’s what athletes are looking for. … In high-energy environments like this, we have to have environments where they can get away from the hype, they can calm their nervous systems down.”
USA Swimming — the national governing body for competitive swimming — partnered with Paws & Think, Inc., a nonprofit in Indianapolis that connects people with therapy dogs.
Since the Olympic trials for swimming started on June 15 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, about 60 therapy dogs have been hanging out in the athletes’ lounge every day. Their primary purpose is to provide comfort to some 1,000 swimmers there, who are under intense stress as they strive to earn a spot at the Summer Olympics in Paris.
“Just seeing the dogs in here laying down, they have no idea what’s going on. They’re just here to be with people, and it’s awesome,” said Carson Foster, a competitive swimmer who made the Olympic team. “It’s one of the highlights of showing up to the pool every day.”
At major sporting events, tensions tend to run high. Therapy animals can take the edge off. Research has shown that being in the presence of dogs reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and eases depression.
“All of our therapy teams are there to provide some comfort and joy,” said Ashleigh Coster, executive director of Paws & Think. “It’s a time for the athletes to decompress.”
While all the therapy dogs have been well-received by the swimmers, there is one pooch in particular who has made the most meaningful mark. Izzo, a 10½-year-old lab-husky mix, was recently diagnosed with terminal bone cancer.
For the past eight years, Izzo has been a therapy dog, working at schools, libraries, health-care facilities and sporting events to support people of all ages. The Olympic trials will be his final job.
“I can’t imagine a more perfect event to cap off his career,” said Megan Montague, Izzo’s handler and a volunteer with Paws & Think. “It’s been very rewarding for him.”
Upon learning of Izzo’s imminent retirement, USA Swimming decided to make him an honorary member of their Olympic team.
“Izzo is a lovable floof,” said Nikki Warner, director of communications for USA Swimming. “It just seemed like the right move to make him an honorary member of our team.”
Izzo’s vet said he probably has only a few weeks — maybe months, if he’s lucky — to live.
“My husband and I are still processing it,” said Montague. “He’s been a once-in-a-lifetime dog.”
He’s known in his community for “spreading smiles and joy all over the place,” she said. “He’s just a really friendly dog.”
Even though he’s low on energy lately, Montague said, Izzo walks laps around the athletes’ lounge to greet all of the swimmers. He still takes his job very seriously.
“He has approached every therapy visit with the same enthusiasm that he always has, despite the effects of his cancer,” said Montague.
“He provides a calming factor, and a reminder of home,” she added, noting that many of the athletes are from out of state and don’t have their own dogs with them.
Montague realized Izzo would make a good therapy dog when she brought him to visit a third-grade class, as her mother was a teacher. The kids — and Izzo — couldn’t get enough.
“I just watched Izzo absolutely come alive, and I did too,” said Montague. “He loves people and loves to be petted.”
Izzo — who was also a therapy dog at the FINA World Junior Swimming Championships in 2017 — was given his very own Olympic trials medal.
Montague said she used to be a competitive swimmer, which has made taking part in the trials even more exciting.
The swimmers said they’re thrilled to have Izzo as an official teammate.
“I just told Izzo, ‘Congratulations on becoming an Olympian,’” said Foster. “He’s a little bit more seasoned than I am in what he does, but I’m excited to be Olympians with him.”
Montague said Izzo seems tickled by the extra attention.
“He definitely feels the love,” Montague said.


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