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Model of perseverance

Most high school athletes have heard their coaches tell them again and again to keep pushing, extend themselves, work through the pain. But when Pasco swim coach Russ Rosenbauer talks about pain, his athletes pay attention.

The man knows what he's talking about.

A standout swimmer at the prep and college levels in Pennsylvania, the 53-year-old had a bout with cancer in 1987, has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. Despite all that, he has been a coaching success with a seemingly indestructible sense of humor. Just listen to him talk about Gulf coach Linda Cassidy, considered the pioneer of Pasco County swimming.

"As coaches go, we're fairly good friends because we've both done the same things," said Rosenbauer, who founded the the East Pasco Piranhas, the only club team east of Interstate 75. "I'm the Linda Cassidy of the east side, but I'm shorter. I used to be 6-feet tall, but now I'm 3-foot-9."

Cassidy, who has coached at Gulf since 1984 and founded three club teams, isn't shy about showing her admiration for Rosenbauer.

"It's hard enough being a coach when you have two legs and two arms; when you can get in the pool and show (swimmers) stuff," she said. "I don't know how he does it, but he's done a great job."

Rosenbauer's wife of 26 years, Sharon, marvels at her husband's quick wit and constant joking.

"People ask me all the time if Russ acts like he is when he's out," Sharon said, "and I say, "Yes, he is."'

Access, at meets and in parking lots for the 26-foot Winnebago he drives, sometimes presents a problem. But Rosenbauer even jokes about that.

"When I go to the state meets, everybody has to scramble because they're not used to having a crippled guy around," he said. "They're always trying to figure out where I can park, and some of the pools aren't that handicapped-accessible. I'm used to the conference meets (the Sunshine Athletic events are held annually at the New Port Richey pool). You should see me turning the corner to the men's room."

Rosenbauer felt the onset of his neurological disorder in 1983 during a morning routine of pushups before heading out to run.

"My right arm pushed me up, but my left arm wouldn't do anything," he said. "For the next six to eight years, I couldn't do anything athletic."

By 1993, Rosenbauer, who went from using a cane to a wheelchair, retired after a 20-year career in insurance and went on disability. Bouts of depression and self-pity followed.

"It was my work-death spiral," Rosenbauer said. "What really did me in is I got up one day to go to work and fell on the floor."

Rosenbauer said his wife and daughters (Amsler, 22, and Dr. Melanie Storm, a 34-year-old psychologist) helped him get past the rough spots.

"I was lucky," he said. "I eventually came to the realization that there is life other than being able to walk around."

Coaching helped. Rosenbauer replaced Cathy Quigley, who got Pasco's program off the ground in 1996 but primarily was a soccer coach, at the behest of Amsler, a junior swimmer at the time.

It is therapeutic, Rosenbauer said.

"I enjoyed (coaching) right from the get-go," he said. "I think I enjoy helping other people do something well.

"Coaching has helped me tremendously. Before that, I was Mr. Mom (Rosenbauer stayed at home while Sharon worked in an office for a construction firm). Coaching got me out of the house and gave me something to do. I consider coaching to be physical therapy and psychological therapy for me."

Coaching brought him back to a sport he grew up with. Rosenbauer and his twin brother, Ray, began swimming for club teams as 7-year-olds in western Pennsylvania. They co-captained their high school squad and swam for Grove City College (Penn.), a Division III team. Along the way, Rosenbauer coached youth teams.

Amsler, a University of South Florida senior working in research at the Moffitt Cancer Center, said swimming for her father at Pasco "was pretty cool. He jokes around, but he is serious. If you show up late for practices or don't do your work, you definitely know he's not happy with you."

Sharon, Pasco's scorekeeper for three seasons (1997-99), said her husband gets the most out of his swimmers by pushing them to their limit. That paid off in 2002 when the boys team became the county's only district champion.

"He tells the kids all the time to work through the pain, because he knows what he's talking about," Sharon said. "He is one very, very tough person."

And though Rosenbauer pushes his charges to excel, he lets them know sports is more than wins and losses. He relishes the competition.

"He's very optimistic, and he has a lot of faith in people," Sharon said. "He doesn't give up on you."

"It's fun being around the kids," Rosenbauer said. "It keeps me going."

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