LANSDALE – A married father of two active kids, Sean Hanley is a proud family man.

But when he leaves his home in North Wales for the nearby Lansdale Area Family YMCA, he is just as dedicated – just as willing to gush, complete with a photo album and stories – about his second family, the Lansdale Powerlifting Team.

In 1994, eight years before he was married, Hanley formed the program – sending athletes with special needs to both the Special Olympics and Paralympics – out of the location.

No need to do the math, this is the program’s 25th year, drawing Montgomery County athletes from Lafayette Hill to Pottstown and from the entry age of 16 all the way to 65.

There are currently 15 lifters in the program, and there have often been as many as 25. It includes Special Olympians (intellectual disability) and those in the Paralympics (physical disability). Alumni who no longer actively compete also still train with their extended family.

“No one does this by themselves,” Hanley is quick to add. “I may have started this, and I will always be here, but 1,000 people have given of themselves as much as I have.

“It’s always been kind of a family.”

And the Y on Main Street has been a beacon for all involved.

“I have had nothing but great support from the Y, both in my life and the Special Olympics,” he said of relationship that began when he brought some athletes to a powerlifting championship and the Y providing them with their own medals.

A Vision Revealed

While he has ceded the official reins of the program to Jim Eckert and then Clarence Williams, everybodystill knows who runs the show.

“After 25 years, this is what you do,” said the North Wales resident and 1990 graduate of North Penn High School, who continued powerlifting at Penn State and worked out, while home on breaks, at the Y where he began working out at in 10th grade.

Hanley’s interest in those with lifters with special was sparked when he was asked to go to the state games with a county athlete named Sam Patterson.

“I’ll never forget him, he was a great kid,” said Hanley, who went on to continue his education at Neumann and Eastern universities and holds a doctorate.

From there, he developed a vision of what has become an area institution.

“I knew right then and there that I wanted to bring it to Montgomery County,” said Hanley, who got the program off the ground in conjunction with the Indian Creek Foundation. “I said, ‘Hey, I want to get this going here.’ From there, it just started growing.”

And with that growth, there has been a winning tradition.

“We’ve had some great success stories,” said Hanley.

Those stories include Patrick Cosby, formerly of Lansdale, who won his division in the bench at the Keystone State Games – and not a Special Olympics division, either.

“He was a very gifted, talented individual,” said Hanley, who had another lifer, North Wales resident Eaton Evans, rank as high in the country as third in the Paralympics and who was a two-time Paralympic qualifier.

Building Bonds

Evans, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, was also in Hanley’s wedding party.

“I was one of his best men,” said Evans, proudly, before adding he had to sit down during the ceremony. “It was a lot of fun, though.”

Despite the bond, there were boundaries.

“It’s a friendship, but it’s also like any other coach-athlete relationship,” said Hanley, stressing the talent level of those he coached in the past and coaches now.

Evans, now 47, was lifting on his own at the gym when approached by Hanley.

For the guy who came to be known as “Mr. Energy,” it was a life-changing moment.

“He asked if I wanted to be a part of his team,” said Evans. “I was, like, ‘sure, why not?’ I accomplished a lot with Sean. I was ranked. He was really knowledgeable, and I’m grateful to him.”

One stereotype might be that these athletes could not hold their own against others. That has been debunked multiple times.

“There are some really strong lifters out there,” said Hanley. “Whether you want to put the Special Olympics name on it or not, they are phenomenal.

“We have a girl dead lifting over 300 pounds. We had a girl once who was lifting 400. We have guys who bench twice their body weight. We have guys who compete well outside of Special Olympics.”

On Top of the World

Hanley, who runs his own company – Developmental Fitness, which he says directly grew legs from the powerlifting program – has also been able to grow wings and soar directly from the personal opportunities that have come through his labor of love.

“I was blessed to be state director for a long time,” he said. “I was coming up with rules, making sure tournaments ran OK, training coaches, making sure athletes had a good time and making sure the tournaments were carried out in a caliber that would be the same as if you showed up as U.S. Nationals. The only difference was that it was Special Olympics.”

“As a coach, it’s the best feeling in the world to know where they started and where they are now.”

He was “blessed” to go the World Games – first in 1995 (New Haven, Conn.), then1999 (Raleigh-Durham, N.C.) and 2003 (Dublin, Ireland) – as a coach with the national team to the World Games.

In the 2007 – in Shanghai, China – was the capper. Two lifters from his program – Tim Herman (squat bench, dead lift) and Kelly Herr (all lifts) – won medals, and Hanley was there, too, in a coaching capacity.

“It was a unique feeling having two of your own there, and winning medals,” he said, of Herr and Herman, of Lansdale, who now captains the 18-and-over Lansdale Titans basketball team.

Herr, who has Down syndrome, claimed a bronze medal in the female competition and brought it home to Collegeville.

It was what her mother, Denise, described as a “once in a lifetime experience” for her daughter, who began swimming at age 8 and then working with Hanley at age 16.

“It’s scary for a new parent,” said Herr, who lives within the boundaries of the Methacton School District. “But, you never see one of Sean’s athletes get hurt.

“I didn’t know anything about powerlifting, but Sean incorporates a whole healthy lifestyle, providing motivation to get into better shape.”

Beyond Medals

The success stories go way back, and they are not just measured in hardware.

Athletes like the late Michael Harrison, who passed away two years ago, are not far from his thoughts.

He can still see Harrison, cranking up the song “Rock You Like A Hurricane” by The Scorpions, and lifting the energy of the whole training room on Wednesday nights.

“He grew as much as a person as he did as a competitor,” said Hanley. “He wasn’t known for lifting a lot of weights, but he was the ball of energy than made things tick.

“It’s priceless to be in those moments. He is one of the ones who defined the energy of this program.”

Herr added that her daughter, now 33, has gained an enormous amount of self-esteem from her success as a powerlifter.

“I will hear her say, ‘I can do that, I’m a powerlifter,’” she said, adding that a lot that feeds off the energy of the program.

“It’s just been great. It’s a nice group. No matter where your abilities are, they are encouraging on all levels.

“And Sean attracts great coaches.”

Family Connections

In addition to the bonds he has formed with the athletes, there are those he was built with their families.

“I’m very close with the families,” said Hanley. “There isn’t anything I haven’t been able to reach out to families for when I’ve needed it, and vice-versa. They have done as much for us as I have done, will continue to do, for them.”

One of many examples is Harleysville’s Bobby Johnson, who now competes in other sports.

“He was a really good lifter,” said of Johnson who has Down syndrome.

He was a natural crowd draw. Some people come to these tournaments, and others gather around them because they want to feel that energy, that excitement.”

Johnson’s mother, Donna, has been involved with the Special Olympics herself and still laments when her son gave up lifting in 2011 as a precaution due to heart issues.

He had been involved in the program since 2001, at age 16, when he was approached by Hanley.

It is recalled now as a special time.

“It really was,” she said. “It meant a whole lot to Bobby. When he was younger, he loved to go out there and compete, and Sean encouraged all of that. It was a great program.”

Beyond the competitions, she remembers the excitement of the Wednesday night practices and the kinship between the lifters – and coaches – when there were personal bests, etc.

“Sean took Bobby under his wing,” she said. “He is just a great, great guy. He loves his job and the athletes, and you can really tell.

“Bobby still thinks the world of him.”

One Question, One Answer

Hanley cautions that the sport “is not for everybody. It’s a unique sport with a certain skill set.”

But there is one requirement, even for volunteers, when they walk in the door, which is one that lifters like Johnson exemplified.

“I always ask them, ‘Why are you here?’ I get all kinds of answers, and they are all wrong,” said Hanley, who is writing a book, “The Fusion of Inclusion” -- with one of his athletes, Mark Graham of Gwynedd Valley. “You are here to have fun. That’s the right answer.”

Truth is, the program’s founding father is still having as blast, and his energy is contagious.

“Sean is just awesome,” said Herr. “Kudos to him for doing it this long.”

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