Intercom Online......March 23, 2000

Soothing splash

Five-year-old Tanya Roberts is helped into the pool at the McCoy Natatorium by
Traci Richardson, an intern with the Disability Recreation Program at University Park.
Jumping and sliding into the pool are two of Tanya's favorite activities,
as part of her exercise therapy program.

Photo: Greg Grieco
For more photos from the program, click here.

New recreation program is
helping individuals overcome obstacles

By Lisa M. Rosellini
Public Information

Since childhood, Colleen Spencer has relied on her wheelchair to take her from place to place. Born with severe cerebral palsy, a condition resulting from damage to the motor areas of her brain which control her body movement and posture -- Colleen hasn't known the pleasures of standing freely, a brisk morning walk or the exhilaration of a run.

Except when she is in the water. In the water, Colleen Spencer is free.

"I can walk in the water and it's one of the greatest feelings," she said. "The water holds me up and allows me to do things I can't normally do."

On a recent morning in the locker room of the McCoy Natatorium on the University Park campus, Spencer -- who had just returned from her honeymoon -- got ready for her daily early morning swim. After a week off, she was feeling the aches and stiffness that settle in her body when she suspends her exercise regime. Even after only one day of not swimming, Spencer said she can feel the consequences. Cerebral palsy -- which afflicts about 500,000 Americans -- is not a progressive disease, but exercise helps to keep the joints and limbs limber.

For nearly a decade, swimming has given this 43-year-old woman the freedom of movement. In fact, once afraid of the water, Spencer is now a competitor of some distinction within the Special Olympics and is training for an April swim meet in Lancaster.

Spencer's dedication and upbeat attitude are something to admire, according to Teri Jordan, who often helps Spencer with therapy in the water. She also attended Spencer's March 11 wedding to her high school sweetheart.

Jordan, a former women's track coach at Penn State for 15 years, is now head of the Disability Recreation Program for Intercollegiate Athletics of which Spencer is a part. The program, officially launched last fall, offers supervised free swimming, weight lifting, ice skating, track and field and basketball activities for special populations, like the elderly, those with developmental disabilities or individuals who are physically challenged. For a number of years, Penn State had a part-time swimming program and ice skating project in conjunction with the local community parks and recreation group. Now under Jordan's direction, the program is slated to expand.

"I am sure I'd be in a wheelchair by now if it weren't for exercise," Vagelatos, an apartment manager, said. "I don't want to use some of the treatments that are suggested for MS. I want to remain drug-free. I want to be alert and not tired. I don't want to get worn down."

Vagelatos is part of a growing group of people that have embraced exercise as a permanent and necessary part of their lifestyle. Jordan's goal is to help these individuals enjoy an athletic experience regardless of their disability. With a master's degree in adaptive recreational education, Jordan has seen first-hand the transformation in people who adopt a more active lifestyle.

Although Jordan is pleased with the initial interest shown in the program she is looking for ways to encourage more senior citizens and people with disabilities to participate. The activities are open to Penn State students, faculty, staff and their families, alumni and community members and Jordan hopes a sports clinic scheduled for April 1 for special populations at the Multi-Sports Complex on campus will introduce more people to the program's opportunities, (see box above).

"It's good for your body, it's good for you emotionally, and it's good for you mentally and socially," Jordan said. "We can accommodate a wide range of people."

Jordan is also working on getting more Penn State students and faculty members involved in the program through internships and class projects that will give students hands-on experience working with special populations, before they graduate. Already, students majoring in kinesiology are working with individuals to help them strengthen muscles and improve their fitness levels.

"It's a well-supervised program that also gives one-on-one instruction," said Tammi Dinges, assistant manager of Strawberry Fields, a local organization that provides various services to people with disabilities. "It gives participants an exercise program but it also gives them an opportunity to be in touch with the community and make friends."

A Web site for the program is up and running at It will eventually have links to national sites where people can go for more facts, ideas on adaptive equipment or information on areas where people with disabilities can ski or participate in other recreational activities. Eventually, Jordan hopes the program will expand to offer golf. She is currently writing a grant proposal to the U.S. Golf Association to establish a specially designed course at University Park that would be geared toward amputees and those in wheelchairs.

For more information

For more information on the Disability Recreation Program offered by Intercollegiate Athletics, visit the Web:, or call director Teri Jordan at (814) 865-8375 or e-mail her at

Sports Clinic

What: Free Sports Clinic for Special Populations

When: Saturday, April 1, from 1:30-3:30 p.m.

Where: Multi-Sports Complex, University Park

The clinic will focus on track and field, basketball and fencing activities for individuals in wheelchairs. An exhibition wheelchair basketball match is planned.


Teri Jordan, director of the Disability Recreation Program
in Intercollegiate Athletics (left), assists Colleen Spencer as she plays aquatic basketball at the McCoy Natatorium on the University Park campus. Spencer, who uses
a wheelchair on land, finds freedom
of movement in the water.

Photo: Meghan Thomas


Barbara Chowicky exercises to build strength in her arm.
Photo: Meghan Thomas

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