NORTH HUNTINGDON TOWNSHIP (KDKA) — Attend a swim team practice at Norwin High School, and it could be any school in any town – until one swimmer exits the pool, and you notice the white cane.
“Some people may be surprised that I swim,” says senior swimmer Hunter McGowan, “but I swim anyhow.”
The surprise comes from the fact that Hunter is both legally blind and legally deaf.
“My right eye, I can’t see anything out of it very well at all,” Hunter said, “so I don’t really have any usable sight, but my left eye I still have some.”
Born with Usher Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes hearing and vision loss, Hunter’s mother, Patti, noticed something wrong early on.
“Hunter is my youngest of three, and I knew something wasn’t right, but didn’t know it was his vision and hearing,” she said. “[When I found out], at first, I think I was in shock. I knew Hunter could learn — he had a lot of abilities, so I knew he was going to have to be supported in a very special way.
Hunter has found that support at Norwin in the form of swim coach Neil Rushnock, who helped devise a light-stick for Hunter so he’d know when he was approaching the wall while swimming the backstroke.
The kids call it The Light Saber.
“When Hunter gets within 10 feet of the flags, we turn it on blinking,” Rushnock said. “Then, when he gets to the flags, we turn it on constant. That way he knows he’s at the flags, so he counts his strokes and knows when to turn at the end of the pool.”
“It took years to perfect it,” Hunter says, “to evolve, but it works out pretty nicely.”
It has worked pretty much every time it’s been in use, except for one away meet last year at Blackhawk High School.
“The end lanes were exceptionally wide there,” Rushnock says, “so I’m leaning over the pool because Hunter is farther away from me and my foot slipped and I fell into the pool. I’m in the pool, the light is floating and the kids are yelling, get the light! Save the light! What about me? So that was a cold, wet ride home.”
“Good thing he didn’t fall on me,” Hunter adds with a laugh.
The pinnacle of Hunter’s swim career came earlier this season in the 200 free relay, even if Hunter didn’t know it at first.
“When they touched,” says Rushnock, “and they saw they had qualified for WPIALs, they screamed and yelled, but Hunter didn’t know because he couldn’t see the board.”
“I didn’t know at first, that’s true,” Hunter says. “It was a pretty cool moment knowing I qualified. I was very happy. I had a big smile on my face.”
The smiles continue in and out of the pool, but Hunter and his family know that the Retinitis Pigmentosa Hunter suffers from is a progressive disease, which will one day rob him of all of his sight.
“RP is a slow, but progressive disease of the retina,” Patti said. “So, we know the cells are slowly but surely going.”
“Sometimes I just try not to think about it,” Hunter says. “I have a pretty good life right now with my family and friends so it doesn’t really bother me. It is frightening a little bit. But the amount of technology out there, I think I’ll be all right.”
It’s that attitude that Rushnock has seen on display for the last four years.
“He’s a hard worker. He’s a good kid,” Rushnock says. “If I had a whole team of Hunters, as hard as he works, we’d win WPIALs every year. He never complains about anything. Always one of the first ones in the pool, last ones out of the pool. Never gives us a hard time about as far as what we ask him to do or not to do. Whatever we tell him to swim, he swims without any complaints.”
Still, Hunter doesn’t think what he does is anything special, or even out of the ordinary.
“I think I just do it, you know?” Hunter says. “I just try my best, that’s all. I have a great team, great coaches that support me and support everyone. And we support each other.”