Charles Saffian
Charles Saffian with coworkers Eric Murphy and Dave Parker in the kitchen at Louie's Grille in Cumberland. Saffian will soon be swimming in the summer Special Olympics in Orlando, Florida. (Courtesy Louie's Grille)
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Competing on live television might seem daunting to some young athletes, but Charles Saffian is an old pro.

“I’ve been on TV many times,” said Saffian, who has another appearance ahead of him in June with his place set at the summer Special Olympics in Orlando, Florida.

For the 21-year-old Cumberland native with Down syndrome, representing Maine in swimming with his teammates is just another item on a long list of passions and hobbies that keep him busy each day.

Charles Saffian swimming
Charles Saffian swims the 50-meter butterfly during a February training camp run by USA Down Syndrome Swimming in Orlando, Florida. (Courtesy Amy Saffian)

Besides being a competitive athlete, Saffian recently graduated from the Portland Arts and Technology High School food services program and is an accomplished piano player. On March 24 he started working twice a week at Louie’s Grille on Main Street in Cumberland.

Saffian’s culinary interest began at PATHS, where he said he was able to gain real-life experience in foodservice and culinary arts.

“It felt really cool to me because I like making different kinds of food – and one of my favorites is making a breakfast pizza,” he said.

Saffian said he enjoys cooking both at work and at home, and it’s calming for him. His work at Louie’s includes lots of prep: peeling scallops, for example, is currently his least favorite because it takes a lot of time, and he enjoys using a blender to make salad dressings.

His ambition comes without nervousness, and his enthusiasm for the things he loves shines through in his smile. 

When he’s not working in the kitchen, chances are he’s swimming, or he’s spending time on another sport. Saffian’s swim training, either solo or with teammates, has been ramping up with the Special Olympics around the corner. 

He said he takes pride in the butterfly – his fastest stroke – and trains as many as four days a week while he counts down the days until he gets to compete in Orlando.

Saffian has always been team-oriented and devoted to athletics. He was a four-sport athlete at Greely High School (swimming, baseball, basketball, and soccer) who always opted to take the bus home with his teammates for the extra time it allowed him to spend with them.

His Special Olympic team will meet together for the first time on April 16, and Saffian said he’s very excited about that. They’ll be flying together and spending the night at a hotel in South Portland before they depart.

Amy Saffian, his mother, said Orlando is a huge opportunity for her son – who has never gone away without his family – to be independent. Apart from the opening ceremonies and when he’s in the pool, she said his family likely won’t see him very much during the competition.

It’s hard work, but that’s how Saffian prefers it; he wouldn’t know it any other way, his mother said. She said people often ask how Saffian fits so much into a busy schedule, but that’s just how it’s always been. As the youngest of five children, if he hadn’t been busy with his own stuff he would’ve been going around with the rest of the family anyway, she said.

Saffian also participates in STRIVE, the South Portland social services nonprofit that teaches independence to young people with developmental disabilities. He said he is learning how to live on his own, with skills like navigating the Metro bus service and budgeting for his own groceries.

He has been featured in a local TV news report about the program, and also enjoys its fun opportunities, like bowling or visiting a bakery – although Saffian said his activity of choice is watching a Netflix comedy when he has a chance to take a break from his active lifestyle.

Through it all, Saffian keeps smiling and laughing with an infectious excitement for all that he does. And he wouldn’t change a thing.

“Being busy,” he said, “is really, really fun.”