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University of Missouri

Penny on the Beach

Mizzou alumna finds her dream job.

Penny Wares McDowall

Penny Wares McDowall, a Zeta Tau Alpha member, coaches Cayman Islander Andrew Smiley, a Special Olympics World Summer Games gold medalist swimmer. Photo courtesy of Penny Wares McDowall.

When Penny Wares McDowall, BS Ed ’81, M Ed ’82, relocated to the Cayman Islands in 1984 from La Plata, Mo., her mother thought she was moving to the end of the earth.

“I sent her letters, and she said, ‘See, there’s no ZIP code. It doesn’t exist,’ ” McDowall says.

After three decades as a scuba and swim instructor, most recently at a school for special-needs children, McDowall can verify the island paradise is real. The water is turquoise, the sand looks like sugar and her dream job includes coaching a local open-water swimming phenom, the appropriately named Andrew Smiley.

“He’s just a great kid,” McDowell says of the 21-year-old 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games gold medalist. “These athletes always have a smile on their face, and once you work with them, they never forget you.”

McDowall learned to scuba dive at Mizzou when she took a class taught by Billy Busch, a professor with Navy SEAL training. As one of 350 students, McDowall could have been overlooked had she not been one of the few women students to complete the course. The class was held at the old natatorium, and open-water final exams took place at Bull Shoals Lake on the Missouri-Arkansas border.

After graduating, McDowall worked at the Lake of the Ozarks until a dive instructor position surfaced in the Caymans. She met her Australian husband shortly thereafter, had two children and never looked back.

“It’s home now,” McDowall says. “We have a lot of visitors, and we have an extra bedroom specifically for them.”