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Denison All-American Hannah Rusinko refuses to let Tourette's define her

Hannah Rusinko gets a hug from a teammate after her conference championship  |  Photo by Brett Dunbar
Hannah Rusinko gets a hug from a teammate after her conference championship | Photo by Brett Dunbar

Control. One of the hallmarks of an athlete. 

When Tom Brady leads his team to another comeback victory he is in complete control. 

When LeBron James drives the lane, absorbs contact and still finishes at the rim his uncanny body control is on display for the world to see.

What happens when that control is taken from you? When your world is flipped on its axis?  When the bullying starts and the tears flow, who will you become?  Will you let "it" win? 

On February 15 at the 2018 North Coast Athletic Conference Swimming & Diving Championship, Denison sophomore Hannah Rusinko hit the touchpad at the conclusion of the 500-yard freestyle and when she looked at the video board she could not believe her eyes.

"When I saw my time, my jaw literally dropped. I couldn't believe it," said Hannah.

She won the event and shaved nearly five seconds off her previous personal best time.

Major time drops, especially around championship season, is not unusual for Denison. The program has established themselves as one of the nation's premier swimming & diving powerhouses. The four national championship banners that loom over the immaculate Trumbull Aquatics Center tell the story.

In the history of Denison swimming & diving, this was the program's 425th event championship at the conference level. Rest assured, hanging a number on Hannah Rusinko would be a mistake. 

She is so much more.

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Rusinko began swimming at the age of eight.  Like so many in her sport, she took to the water and never had a trace of fear. "Land sports," as she referred to them, were a different story.  "I tried soccer and basketball," said Hannah. "The coordination was not ideal," she laughed.

Hannah also had a penchant for music.  She began singing and playing the piano in kindergarten.  The only child of Lauren and Joseph Rusinko was living the life of a typical Midwestern girl with plenty of friends and activities filling her days.

When Hannah was in the sixth grade her parents began to observe some signs that worried them.

"I started blinking a lot and my parents noticed it. They were like, 'If you can stop we won't take you to the doctor,' but it didn't stop.  I went to the doctor and I was diagnosed."

Tourette syndrome. 

Tourette syndrome is a neurological disorder characterized by repetitive, stereotyped, involuntary movements and vocalizations.

If things would have stopped with just excessive blinking it's likely this story is never told.  The symptoms referred to as tics, run the gamut from mild to debilitating.

Symptoms also tend to be at their most severe during pre-teen to teenage years.  About 10-15 percent of those diagnosed with Tourette syndrome have the accompanying vocalizations or coprolalia, which is the uttering of words or sounds.

Hannah's symptoms trended toward the severe and her life of normalcy was a distant memory.

"I went from being the girl that was friends with everyone and very social, to being this person who twitches and makes noises."

Hannah struggled through seventh grade.  She considered homeschooling and quitting the swim team altogether.  She can recount, in vivid detail, the bullying that she was subjected to during those early years after the diagnosis.  When the tics were at their worst, they could happen up to 40 times per minute.

Denison head swimming coach Gregg Parini has a hard time imagining all that Hannah has had to endure.

"It must have been an incredibly difficult struggle for her," said Parini. " People at that age are so quick to turn on things that they don't understand.  It is a testament to her strength and the strength of her family that she got through this."

Faced with the crossroads of leaving school, Hannah made the brave decision to not only stay but educate those around her.

As a freshman in high school, Hannah was selected to be a youth ambassador for Tourette's in Western Pennsylvania. In that role, she traveled to Washington, D.C. for training. When she returned she met with school officials and teachers in surrounding districts, bringing awareness to Tourette's.

"I realized the only way that things were going to get better was if I educated people about what it was," said Hannah. "Opening up and letting people know about this has helped me and hopefully doing this, others (with Tourrette's) won't have to go through the same thing that I did."

Hannah had found her voice and realized that it was helping.  It became easier to know who her real friends were and it was clear that the Tourette's had forced her to grow up in a hurry.

"Being able to realize that I have overcome something that could have completely ruined me…I hold it close to my heart," said Hannah.

During Hannah's junior year of high school, she began to think about college.  She was a rapidly improving swimmer who had hopes of swimming at the Division I level.  An old friend of Parini thought there might be a better fit for Hannah.

"One of my good friends who was coaching in Pittsburgh told me about her and what an outstanding young lady she was but, understand that she does have Tourette's and initial conversations can be a little bit awkward," said Parini.

On the advice of his friend, Parini and assistant coach, Kim Lloyd started recruiting Hannah to Denison.

Parini had never coached an athlete with Tourette syndrome but he had coached athletes with disabilities and he understood the galvanizing effect that can have on a team.  Julie Wolfe '94 was a member of Parini's teams in the early 90s and she had Cerebral Palsy which resulted in only 50 percent usage of the right side of her body.  Wolfe went on to represent the United States at the Paralympic Games in 1992 and 1996 and won silver in the 400-meter freestyle in '96.

"This is when a disability can become a strength," noted Parini. "They can actually provide the foundation for incredible growth and she (Rusinko) has the capacity to live and bring an intensity to things that very few people can relate to.  From that standpoint, this has been a gift. She has taken what most people would see as a setback and she has used it to her advantage to make her stronger, to live more fully, to live with courage and to live with grace."

Hannah made her official visit to Denison and fell in love with the campus and the people, immediately. 

"When I met with Gregg, the amount that he truly cares about every single person is clear. Whether you are at the top of the roster or the bottom he has a goal for each and every one of us and he knows that with hard work, we can achieve it.  I didn't look at too many schools. I was stuck on the whole D-I thing for a while but when I came on to Denison's campus something just clicked and it was like, this is where I need to be. This is my home."

So, Denison it was.  But that choice also meant starting over.  It meant meeting new people, making new friends and educating an entirely new community on Tourette syndrome.

"Coming to a new school and trying to fit in again was another boundary that I needed to overcome," said Hannah. "The team has been so supportive of me.  They are my family.  Fitting in has been a problem for me just because I am so self-conscious about the Tourette's but being at a liberal arts school, people are so much more accepting.  Not only are they accepting, they are willing to learn about what is going on with you and they are willing to help."

"Denison prides itself on being inclusive," said Parini. "The swimming and diving team's relationship with Hannah and the relationship Hannah has with the team underscore that.  It's not unusual for Hannah to have a tic in the middle of a team meeting and it's just seamless, never even an off-look.  It's just a part of the landscape and our fabric and the team is remarkably comfortable with it."

Parini is quick to point out that it is Hannah, herself, that sets the tone.

"Our comfort starts with her.  She's not apologetic. She just says, 'This is who I am."

Hannah will enter this week's NCAA Division III Swimming & Diving Championship with the nation's fourth-fastest time in the 500 freestyle (4:53.10) and the eighth-fastest time in the 1,650-yard freestyle (17:02.80).

Last year, in her first trip to nationals, Hannah became an All-American, swimming on Denison's 12th place 800-yard freestyle relay team. She also finished 36th in the 500 free and 37th in the 1,650.  If the conference championship was any indication, she appears to be on the verge of something special.

"I know she was a little bit rattled by how things went last year at NCAA's," said Parini.  "We have talked about that quite a bit and we have revamped her training pretty significantly this year to cover that.  I think she is setting herself up for a much stronger national's experience."

Her surge in the pool is paralleled in the classroom.  Hannah is majoring in biology with a minor in psychology with the ultimate goal of being a pediatric neurologist who specializes in children with Tourette's.  The structure that swimming affords her life has never been more important.

"I think that if I wasn't swimming I might feel like I have all of the time in the world and I might push some things off.  All of the different skills I have gained from swimming have helped me in the classroom.  The want to succeed and constantly striving to better yourself transfers to school," said Hannah.

Oh, and remember the singing?

Music still plays a key role in her life.  Hannah is a member of Denison's female Acapella group, Ladies Night Out, and she is quick to snatch up the microphone prior to every home Denison swimming & diving meet to belt out the national anthem.  She even had the opportunity to sing the anthem prior to the NCAC Swimming & Diving Championship in front of a capacity crowd of more than 1,000 fans.

"When I perform my tics completely go away," beamed Hannah. "It's a way to come out of my shell and be free.  In swimming and in singing, you control your own destiny."

Hannah's authenticity is readily apparent when you first meet.  That's why Parini never shies away from pairing Denison's best high school recruits with her, on their campus visits.

"She is clearly one of our top recruiters. She has such a great track record of yielding the students that she hosts."

Hannah Rusinko's story at Denison isn't even halfway complete but she has already left an indelible impact on a program laden with success stories.

"All of us just sit back and say, what a remarkable story, what remarkable role model for all of us," said Parini.

The 2018 NCAA Swimming & Diving Championships will begin on Wednesday, March 21 and will continue through Saturday, March 25 from the IUPUI Natatorium in Indianapolis, Indiana. For More information visit NCAA Swimming & Diving Central.

 

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