Back Row left to right: Rachel Lisacchi, Shawn McArdle, Lori Bristow, Lonnie Lott and Danny Albano
Front Row left to right: Coach Ann, Ben Coreano, Patrick Gilronin and Kevin Koethe
When Ann Russo steps onto the court, there’s no place for negativity. To her, and to her volleyball team, sportsmanship is about encouragement. Throughout her career as a Special Olympics coach one thing has always been constant: mistakes aren’t moments for criticism; they’re opportunities to learn.
Russo, who works at Aqua’s Bryn Mawr office as a customer billing refund analyst, has been involved with the Special Olympics for the past 30 years, starting out as a swim instructor while attending Marple Newtown Senior High School outside of Philadelphia. She moved onto volleyball 15 years ago. Since then, the time she’s spent helping people with special needs taught her as much about herself as it did those she assists.
“I’ve always had an innate coach in me, an innate teacher,” Russo said. “The fostering of athletes is not only in sports, it’s in self-esteem. It’s about having people come out of their shells and learn about themselves.”
The Special Olympics have an oath: Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt. This mantra not only shaped Russo’s approach to coaching, it’s something she takes with her through life.
Her team, the Fighting Hawks, has nearly a dozen players spanning between ages 18 and 47. From Nov. 7 to 9, the team competed in the Special Olympics Pennsylvania Fall Festival tournament at Villanova University. The tournament features teams from across the state competing in seven divisions. The Hawks played against three other teams in their division throughout the festival.
Russo, who has been to the event 14 out of her 15 years as coach, always makes sure her team is both mentally and physically prepared so no one gets overwhelmed. She said it’s important that her relationship with the athletes, both men and women, is defined early on. She’s responsible not only for their coaching but also their well-being. This parental role has permeated throughout her career as a coach. In the past, team members have jokingly called her “mom.”
“They know what Coach Ann says, goes,” Russo said. “You find different ways to communicate. You have to pull within yourself and find the best way to communicate what you’re thinking. It becomes a challenge.”
Russo has three rules: be focused and have fun; get your hands up and be ready; and use your dancing feet. Her playful attitude is what keeps her team relaxed and loose, she said. For example, before every game, the Fighting Hawks wiggle — as in, shake their whole body — for a final warm up. It’s important to remind her athletes that it’s just a game. Forget the nerves, she said, and just wiggle.
Russo’s philosophy on coaching is supported by her experiences in strengthening athletes. Since starting as a volleyball coach, she’s seen players gain confidence in themselves. They become more aware and more willing. They break out of their shells.
“You see them make strides and improve themselves as a person,” she said. “And that’s what’s more rewarding to them.”
Russo said the Fighting Hawks finished fourth in their division this year, losing to the first place team during a round robin match on the tournament’s final day. While it was tough a loss, Russo made sure her players focused on the experience rather than the defeat.
“It’s about sportsmanship. It’s about respect for others and letting them understand it’s OK to make a mistake,” she said. “I tell them, you may have lost, but do you also understand how well you did?”
The theme at this year's Special Olympics Fall Festival at Villanova University was "Heroes Forever."
Steve Condodina and Danielle Sweeny pose with a Stormtrooper at this year's event. Condodina and Sweeny are part of the Fighting Hawks Skills group, which means they specialize in one aspect or skill.