Doug Cassidy vividly remembers the conversation he had with Amy Cavagnaro her freshman year. Cavagnaro had been swimming with the modified team for Williamsville North wearing a belt with a floatation device. At that point it was more for extra safety than necessity and Cassidy explained to his young swimmer that if she wanted to compete in varsity races, the rules said she could not use the belt.
“She said OK, took it off and got right in the pool and started swimming,” Cassidy said. “She never looked back.”
Fear is not really part of Cavagnaro’s vocabulary. Neither is limitation. The 18-year old senior is a trailblazer of sorts for the Spartans. She was born with Down Syndrome and a form of cerebral palsy. When she was 5, she was diagnosed with leukemia and underwent treatments at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Now in remission from the cancer, she still doesn’t let her physical limitations prevent her from being a fierce competitor and a much-loved teammate.
“She’s not a token. She’s a Spartan,” Cassidy said. “I don’t want to say the older kids take her for granted, but they’ve been with her for four years and to them, she’s just Amy. She has an infectious spirit and is always smiling. She just has an impact on everyone, not just her teammates but opposing coaches and parents as well.”
Cavagnaro started coming to Williamsville North swim meets to cheer on her older sister Michelle. She loved the atmosphere, the competition and the other girls. Her mother, Kathy, was slightly concerned at first about Amy swimming in the deeper end of the pool, but that quickly subsided. Cassidy, she said, has been incredibly welcoming as have the other girls on the team.
“I have two other children and they had a fantastic experience in high school,” Kathy said. “I thought why shouldn’t Amy have the same opportunity? I can say in four years there has not been one incident, not one negative comment. It’s been an incredible experience.”
Cassidy had volunteered in the past for the Special Olympics but never worked directly with a swimmer with special needs like Cavagnaro. As a teacher at the alternative high school, he’s used to working with kids who are square pegs trying to fit into a round hole. So they took the journey practice by practice.
“One of the things that did require growth in me was to be able to clearly teach skills,” Cassidy said. “Often you give directions to kids who are highly motivated and they go off and do it. Amy takes a bit more time to teach technique. But if you tell her to do something, she will do exactly what you ask of her. I’d love to say she made me more patient, but you don’t really need patience around Amy.”
Cavagnaro can swim all four strokes but mostly races the 50-yard freestyle. In the grand scheme of the meet, she’s finishing last. But you wouldn’t know it from the support she gets at the pool.
“I can hear them in the water yell, ‘Amy! Amy!’” Cavagnaro said. And one of her favorite parts about swimming? “Touching the wall.”
The competition isn’t just about who finishes first overall. It’s also about competition with yourself.
“After every race she looks up at me and the first thing out of her mouth is, ‘Did I record?’” Cassidy said. “She wants to know if she swam her personal best and set a personal record.
“That’s one of the great things about our program and about swimming. We can keep everybody. We have 50 girls on the team and they can all train together. We have first-year kids swimming with state qualifiers and they all can learn from each other.”
And plenty have learned from Amy. She’s a bit of a celebrity at Williamsville North.
In addition to swimming the 50 free, she often sings the national anthem before meets. She’s on the outdoor track and field team, running the 200 and 400 meters. She goes to all the school dances and loves music. In fact, ask her the best thing about being on the swim team and she’ll say singing in the locker room with her teammates. (Justin Bieber is the favorite singer at the moment.)
She also loves going to team parties and participating in fundraising events.
This summer, Cavagnaro participated in Carly’s Crossing, an event for Carly’s Club that raises money for pediatric cancer causes at Roswell Park. She did the 600-meter open water event in Lake Erie just fine. She said she prefers swimming in the pool to the lake, but swimming in the lake was still pretty cool.
“I can tell you four years later, she still affects me, just her infectious spirit,” Cassidy said. “People have a bad day. Imagine what it’s like to have to face the challenges Amy has had to face and faces every day. It’s a humbling experience and some of the things we think are so important in our lives seem tiny by comparison. The most important thing she taught me, why she’s one of my heroes, is that with all the challenges, she’s never shrunk away from any of them.”