Norwin swimming coach wins Helen Keller Award

Doug Gulasy
| Tuesday, July 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

When Hunter McGowan tried out for the Norwin swimming team in 2009, coach Neil Rushnock didn't know for sure how the legally blind and legally deaf freshman would respond to his instruction.

The work the two did together over the past four seasons drew the attention of people in the deafblind community.

The Pennsylvania Partnership for the Deafblind recently presented its annual Helen Keller Award to Rushnock for his work with McGowan. The PPDB supports Pennsylvania individuals and families dealing with deafblindness, and the Helen Keller Award recognizes people for their support of the deafblind community.

“I was kind of surprised that they gave it to me,” Rushnock said. “I don't think I did anything out of the ordinary that any coach should do. They should coach everybody, not just the superstars. I gave Hunter as much attention as anybody else. I think a lot of (the credit) goes to Hunter for working so hard and responding to whatever I told him to do.”

McGowan was born with Usher syndrome, a genetic disorder that can cause deafblindness. Usher syndrome is associated with gradual vision loss, as well as a defective inner ear. McGowan has night blindness and a lack of peripheral vision, and he also wears hearing aids.

Rushnock and McGowan met originally when McGowan's sister presented her graduation project on Usher syndrome to a group of three teachers, including Rushnock. They met again when McGowan came out for the swimming team as a freshman.

“He was just so great in how he would support me like that, so naturally,” McGowan said. “There wasn't a lot of questions that had to be asked, a lot of back and forth. It was just straightforward. There wasn't anything between us, any barriers.”

“He set such a good example,” said Patti McGowan, Hunter's mother, of Rushnock. “No one cut him slack; it was just a mutual respect. No one felt sorry for him, but they just treated him like another team member. When things like that start at the top, when you've got such a great example, it's so positive.”

Over the years, Rushnock developed a system for working with McGowan. Because McGowan sometimes couldn't see the colored flags that warn backstroke swimmers when they're nearing the wall, Rushnock tried using brightly colored folders — which ended up “wilting” — before settling on a light extended on a pole.

McGowan said Rushnock also helped him with his technique, allowing him to improve as a swimmer.

Through it all, Rushnock said McGowan worked extremely hard to improve. It paid off last season when McGowan qualified for the WPIAL Class AAA championships as a member of the 200-yard freestyle relay.

“That was the fun part of it — watching how hard he worked and seeing the hard work pay off,” Rushnock said. “He finally got to the point where he had a shot at qualifying for WPIALs in the 200 free relay. ... I said, ‘Let's give this a shot.' He deserved it for working so hard for four years.”

“It was really cool,” McGowan said. “I'm glad he gave me the opportunity to do it. I remember talking to him after my junior year to say how great it would be to make it to WPIALs my senior year of high school. I'm glad he gave me the opportunity, (and I'm grateful) to the other swimmers for giving me the support as well.”

Rushnock said he grew close to McGowan over the past four seasons. While he said the Helen Keller Award came as a surprise, he was just glad to work with McGowan.

“It's been fun,” Rushnock said. “I've enjoyed it, and I'm going to miss Hunter.”

Doug Gulasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-388-5830, via email at or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.

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