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’He’s not just making us athletes, he’s making us better people’

Hillsborough rec department’s Andy Chasanoff about to retire after 50 years of coaching.

Most of the athletes arrived early that Saturday. Some of their parents dropped them off at Adventures Archery in Tampa. Three steered themselves in wheelchairs. One brought an aide. Another, a therapy dog.

They threaded through the store, past stuffed turkeys and deer heads, and turned into the long, open range.

Coach Andy greeted each with a question. “Hey Liz, how are exams going? Good to see you, Sergio! What have you been up to? When is your piano recital, Rachel?”

Then he handed out bows. On the far wall, nine new targets were lined up, some lower than others. Coach Andy tacked another two to portable podiums and rolled them close, for kids who couldn’t shoot that far.

“All right, let’s get going here,” he said, sliding arrows into the quivers by their feet. “Hands up. Hold ’em steady. Let’s have some fun.”

A few needed help threading the arrows into their bows. Some needed to have their bows adapted, so they could hold them. One boy, whose arms were too weak to draw the string, pulled the arrow back with his teeth, then let fly. “Great job! Look at that!” called Coach Andy, clapping his hands when someone hit the target. “No problem,” he said when arrows fell to the floor. “This isn’t a competition. Not yet. Try again.”

Andy Chasanoff, 66, has been coaching students with physical disabilities for 50 years. He started youth sports programs in New Jersey, Connecticut and Florida and has taken five athletes to the International Paralympic Games. For the past 18 years, he has worked for Hillsborough County’s Parks and Recreation Department.

There, he estimates, he has coached more than 1,000 young athletes with a myriad of physical challenges, like lost or paralyzed limbs, cerebral palsy and spina bifida. He has taught them to play soccer, tennis and basketball, to swim, sail, lift weights, run track, water-ski, kayak and golf. He has watched them grow up and go on to college. He helped a few find jobs.

That morning in December was his last Saturday of archery. In January, Coach Andy is retiring. He hopes to spend more time visiting his three sons, playing with his three grandkids.

But he still has to get Liz, a sophomore at Eckerd College, ready for her spring archery tournament. He needs to make sure that Danielle, 14, wins gold medals in discus, shot put and javelin in February, at the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports World Games in Thailand. He wants to draw 13-year-old Abby out of her shell -- and help her walk a mile.

“There she is! There’s my girl. I was worried you wouldn’t make it,” he said when Abby Bischoff limped in with her dad 10 minutes later. They had driven almost an hour from Plant City. “Here you go,” said Coach Andy, adjusting her bow. “Now, go ahead and try. You don’t need me.”

Abby smiled shyly and shouldered her bow. “I need you,” she said. “You’re why I’m here.”

***

In high school, on Long Island, Andy played basketball and ran track. He dreamed of going to the Olympics to compete in the 400-meter. Then he planned to become a P.E. teacher.

The summer he was 16, his dad wanted him to work in the family vacuum store. “The most boring thing,” Andy said. “So when I saw a newspaper ad about working at the pool, helping kids with cerebral palsy, I thought that sounded much more fun. And I’d get to be outside.”

He spent that summer working as “the human lift” at the pool. And feeding lunch to a 5-year-old girl. “Julie was beautiful, outgoing and great. She was in a chair, all floppy, and so much fun,” Andy said. “We’d talk about cartoons, about food, what she liked to do. I brought my dates to meet her. She’d give me thumbs up or thumbs down. I taught her to swim.”

By that fall, when he went back to high school, his path was set. He wanted to work with kids with disabilities, help them push past their limitations.

After college, he became a recreational therapist at a children’s hospital in New York. There, he met an occupational therapist who became his wife. Little Julie from the pool, 16 by then, was their flower girl.

Though Andy and his wife, Debbie, both worked with physically challenged children, they never talked about the possibility of their own kids having problems. Mike, the oldest, was fine. So was Marc, who was born next. “Tommy is his twin, who decided he didn’t want to come out,” Andy said. He was born blue. Doctors said he would die. After a month in intensive care, the baby got to go home.

Doctors diagnosed Tommy with cerebral palsy and said he had hearing loss. Andy asked: “So what’s the bad news? We got it good.”

Tommy learned to walk, then run. Andy coached his boys in basketball, with Tommy playing on the same team as his brothers. “He became one hell of an athlete,” Andy said. “He wouldn’t let anything slow him down.”

At another children’s hospital, in New Jersey, Andy became recreation director and formed a wheelchair track and field team. He helped start a statewide program for adaptive sports, then worked with the National Junior Disability Championships. He was inducted into the National Wheelchair Athletic Association Hall of Fame.

In 1997, after 2 feet of snow fell, Andy and his wife moved to Florida.

“He has made such a huge difference to so many kids, helping them develop -- and develop self-worth,” said Kelly Mione, who helped Andy raise money for wheelchairs and sports supplies. “He gets these kids to go out of their comfort zones, gives them something they can be successful at and be proud of.”

Liz Tidey, 19, has worked with Coach Andy for five years.

“He’s not just making us athletes, he’s making us better people,” she said. “He’s competitive, sure. But he’s not just about sports. He wants us to do better in life. We’re going to miss him a lot.”

Coach Andy is helping Liz Tidey get ready for a spring archery tournament. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

***

At the edge of the archery range, Abby looked at Coach Andy, then pulled back her bow. The first arrow flew toward the ceiling. The next crashed to the floor.

“Hold your elbow up. Hold it steady. You got this,” said Coach Andy. This time, the arrow hit the wall between two targets. “All right. Better. You’re going to make this next one,” he said. “I’m here. I’m good luck.”

Abby met Coach Andy in November, when she started swimming at the Hillsborough Parks and Recreation Department. He told her she should try archery. He promised to introduce her to the other athletes. “I’m home-schooled, Florida Virtual School, so I need to socialize. But I’m really shy,” Abby said. “Coach Andy helps me relax and feel comfortable. He makes me laugh.”

After a few more rounds of shooting, after Coach Andy brought her a chocolate doughnut and refilled the quiver by her feet, Abby loaded another arrow, drew the string, squinted her eyes.

The arrow pierced the yellow bull’s eye. Abby screamed.

“Look at that!” Coach Andy cried, hugging her. “I told you I was good luck.”

At a table in the back of the room, Abby’s dad looked up and smiled. He had seldom seen his daughter so excited.

“Coach Andy has given her so much confidence,” Jim Bischoff said later. His daughter has a form of cerebral palsy that makes her muscles extremely weak. She sways slightly when she walks and tires easily. “Here, Abby can see people who are more disabled than her, and some not as bad, all having fun and working to improve at a sport,” he said.

After two hours, a woman blew a whistle. Time to clear the range. The dozen athletes walked and rolled to the far end to collect their arrows. Coach Andy reached into a folder and pulled out an entry form for a January road race.

“Abby,” he said, “this is for you. I want you to do this.”

“How far is it?” she asked softly, studying the paper. She shook her head. “I don’t know …”

Coach Andy put his hand on her shoulder and smiled. “It’s a mile. One mile. You can make it,” he said. “You’re going to walk right next to me.”

Abby Bischoff says Coach Andy has helped become more confident and outgoing. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

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