Drill team director living life to the fullest despite handicap
Movement, dance and competition was a major part of Mario Schwartz's life for nearly a decade, so he wasn't about to let an accident that put him in a wheelchair keep him from doing what he loves most.
"I think the word disabled is just a state of mind," he said. "I don't feel any different or act any different."
Schwartz, 26, now a student at the Community College of Allegheny County South Campus in West Mifflin, has been a quadriplegic since a swimming accident in 1998.
He not only writes choreography but also directs two award-winning drill team units.
Both the Carrick High School Winterguard and the Dark Horizons Winterguard, an independent drill team with 18 members between ages 14 and 22, do drill and dance routines involving flags, rifles and sabers.
Both are involved in the Winterguard International organization of teams, and both perform routines for entertainment and competition.
Schwartz performed with the Carrick team from eighth grade through high school and was a founder of the Dark Horizons team.
Now, "I convert movement and action and routines into verbal instructions," Schwartz said, explaining that his assistants interpret movements for the students.
His system works well, said Margie Wiskeman, who assists him with the high school group.
"If they don't know it, he'll describe it," she said, adding that the group came in second last year in state competition.
"He's always been hard working and energetic, and he's very artistic in that he knows what he wants."
Schwartz began performing with the Carrick Winterguard when he was in eighth grade. When he graduated in 1993, he and other members of the team formed Dark Horizons so they could continue performing.
He graduated from Pittsburgh Beauty Academy and worked as a cosmetology instructor there for four years.
Since his accident, Schwartz has returned to school for a career change.
He now studies communications and journalism at CCAC.
"I always wanted to go to college," he said. "After high school, I didn't feel I was mature enough. My accident gave me a reason to go back and to go back for something I enjoy."
With a 4.0 grade-point average, Schwartz said he plans to transfer to Duquesne University to complete his degree.
Schwartz said he enjoys writing but also is considering a career as a news broadcaster or possibly a teacher.
"There's so many options," he said.
Esther Mason, director of supportive services at CCAC, said Schwartz is an inspiration to the other students and the staff.
"He doesn't just say it, he lives it," she said.
At CCAC, Schwartz is involved with ABLE Company, an organization that provides disability awareness.
"He's very much a people-oriented person," Mason said. "He interacts with so many people. Everyone knows him."
Last season, Dark Horizons was the Winterguard International Tournament of Bands Independent Open champion. The team won another title, the Three Rivers Ensemble Association Independent A champion.
"I just push them as hard as I can," Schwartz said. "When people say 'I can't,' I don't accept that from anyone."
Writing programs and directing two groups that are in competition can be hectic, Schwartz said.
Complicating matters is the fact that he must depend on friends to drive him to practices and competitions.
Schwartz spent four months after his accident in a hospital intensive care unit, three months in a nursing home and four more in a rehabilitation program. He credits friends and family with encouraging and supporting his recovery.
He lives with his aunt and uncle in Carrick, because their home is more handicapped accessible than his parents' home and his cousin is one of his aides.
When he was recovering, other Dark Horizons members brought videotapes of drill team performances to the hospital for him to review. They asked for his help with their choreography.
"I was very apprehensive about a lot of things," Schwartz said. "But I started realizing that everything I had been doing, I could still do."
|The Schwartz file|