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Special athletes train for Mon Valley/Washington County Special Olympics

| Saturday, March 22, 2014, 2:03 p.m.
Dillon Spencer of Fredericktown coaches swimmer Derrick Green during a recent training session for Special Olympics at the Mon Valley YMCA in Carroll Township.

Katie Swaney was just 15 when she started volunteering at the Mon Valley/Washington County Special Olympics swimming program.

Starting out at meets initially, she has been coaching the athletes at the program, operated out of the Mon Valley YMCA in Carroll Township.

“I've known some of these kids since they were babies,” said Swaney, who mentors special needs children at Pathways in Washington, Pa.

“I really enjoy it,” Swaney said. “I enjoy mentally challenged kids. They give me more respect than any teens.

“A lot of them live in group homes. They look forward to Friday nights.”

The Mon Valley/Washington County Special Olympics is the only such swimming program in the county. The team is sponsored through local fundraising efforts.

The team practices from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Fridays between October and May.

Darlene Hunter said her daughter, Ashly Hunter, now 46, has been swimming with Special Olympics for the past 30 years.

She started with Fayette County Special Olympics in Uniontown at the high school. Barry Hunter was attending a Lions Club meeting when he heard a presentation about Special Olympics. That's how he introduced his daughter, Ashly, to the sport.

Barry Hunter would eventually coach swimming and basketball for years before his passing a couple of years ago.

The Hunters have followed the program from Charleroi to Ringgold to the Mon Valley YMCA.

“Wherever we could get a pool,” Darlene Hunter said.

For many years, that was in Charleroi, where Laura Jane Amodei coached Ashly and many other successful athletes for many years.

“I've seen a lot of these athletes come and go,” Darlene Hunter said.

Ashly swam in the International Special Olympics in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., in 1999. There, she won two bronze medals, Those medals were among 200 she has collected over three decades of swimming. She used to play basketball as well. “She loves to swim,” said Darlene Hunter. “She comes here and never stops.”

Emily Wood learned about the Special Olympics swimming program while talking with Denise Green, who regularly accompanies her brother, Derrick, 41, to Special Olympics swimming. Wood said her grandson Stevie Wood, 14, of Collinsburg, started last season and competed at the regional meet at the University of Pittsburgh.

“He likes to swim and he likes his medals, and I enjoy seeing him get involved in things,” Emily Wood said.

Denise Green said Derrick Green first became involved in Special Olympics at age 5. He formerly played basketball and bowled.

Swaney has grown up at the YMCA, volunteering at summer camp and later working at the ARC Camp.

She is assisted by two other coaches. Dillon Spencer of Fredericktown is working on a major in special education. Kerri Weldon of Vestaburg is a stay-at-home mom with a 10-month-old daughter.

The team will compete April 5 at the regional event on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh.

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642.