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Through His Puzzled Eyes - Jonathan Learns To Run - 4

Updated: Dec 23, 2019


Learning To Run

Throughout Jonathan’s adolescence, our mother Olga sought out and contacted many different special needs programs to enroll Jonathan in as many extracurricular activities as possible. Since Jonathan wasn't capable of telling us what new things he wanted to try, we effectively had to “throw him in the deep end.”

We signed him up for a bowling league, took him to horseback riding, as well as registered him for a special needs basketball league. These activities gave Jonathan an outlet in order to expend some of his energy as well as to help him assimilate “age approriate” activities like his older siblings.

Jonathan was not always enthusiastic or attentive during some of these activities; however our mother was still determined to at least give him as much exposure as possible to these different environments. It was precisely this determination and persistence that prompted my mother to have Jonathan join a special needs running club called ROLLING THUNDER.

When Jonathan first joined the Rolling Thunder Special Needs running club, he struggled tremendously. Like many people, Jonathan did not seem very enthused at the prospect of running for any extended period of time. In fact, for the first couple of weeks, he could not run more then 10 to 15 yards without stopping, getting distracted or wanting to lie down. The RTSN coaches had difficulty keeping Jon mobile for even a quarter of a lap around the practice track.

How do you teach someone with such little verbal comprehension, who has never played any organized sports, to overcome their confusion and discomfort and just run?

Olga, knowing her son's tendency to learn by immitation, bought herself new matching running shoes and began to hit the track with her son. She was not a runner by any means, but for Jonathan, she would do anything to maximize his chances to succeed. In effect, Olga became Jonathan's first running coach, and technique was the least of her priorities. She needed to figure out a way to engage Jonathan and keep him moving for minutes, not seconds, at a time.

Olga began running side by side with Jonathan throughout practices with the RT program. She was committed to getting Jonathan to complete the several laps required at each practice. If he stopped running, she would go behind him and push. If he dragged his feet, she would grip his waistband and effectively pull him along. She would sing him Disney or Wee Sing songs, give him kisses; anything to get him to understand and comprehend the sport of running.

For two months, Olga exhausted herself twice a week trying to get all 185 pounds of a relatively uninspired Jonathan to participate. Despite all that effort, something was missing. Jonathan simply wasn't connecting with this activity and it truly seemed like it was time to just move on. The Rolling Thunder program had weekly 5k races open to all their members. Jonathan and Olga would compete in these races, but he was always the very very last member of the team to finish, usually clocking in a paltry 15 minutes per mile. Jonathan's running style was composed of a medley of starting, stopping, wandering, sitting, and dragging. Like many things in life, this was becoming very clear. Jonathan was NOT a runner, and Olga felt like she needed to move on to another activity.

ENTER, the head coach of Rolling Thunder, Steve Cuomo.

When Olga approached him with the idea to remove Jonathan from the program, coach Steve was adamantly opposed. In his mind, the Rolling Thunder Program was designed specifically to teach special athletes to persevere and never quit. Olga struggled with idea of sticking with the program, mainly because she was exerting too much physically to keep Jonathan going during runs and races. Coach Steve recommended a long time volunteer of the RT program named Vincent Del-Cid.

It was an introduction that would not only change Jonathan's life, but one that would give him and his family a precious and beautiful gift. The gift of hope.

When coach Vincent met Jonathan for the very first time, he had no previous experience dealing specifically with an autistic individual. Vincent, a 24 time marathoner and accomplished endurance athlete, knew all the ins and outs of running and technique, pace and breathing. He understood how running affects the body and how to train in rain sleet or snow. His next challenge, communicating this vast quantity of running knowledge to a young autistic man whose communications difficulties made the task seem impossible.

The first day Olga brought Jonathan to be trained by Vincent, they met up on a track in Bethpage, New York. Vincent wanted to assess his potential as a runner and get some idea for what he would be in for. That first day he he took Jonathan out to run for about 45 minutes covering about 2 miles. While Jonathan sprinkled in many stops, starts and drags, coach Vincent emerged from their escapade fully convinced that Jonathan was more than capable of participating and possibly excelling in the running program.

In a private moment, coach Vincent expressed the reasons behind his personal desire to work with Jonathan.

“When I first met Jonathan, he was 16 going on 17 years old. He was over-weight and was constantly clinging to his mother. I kept picturing a 35 year old Jonathan and an overworked, over tired Olga still struggling to find him a place in life.”

Coach Vincent Del-Cid.

Olga would learn very quickly that coach Vincent was demanding and goal-oriented, Vincent would learn very quickly that mother Olga was committed, serious and willing to move mountains for her son. It was a perfect match. Many autistic individuals acclimate well to structure and routine, and with Olga's discipline and coach Vincent's strict 3x a week running schedule, Jonathan began to understand the sport of running.

Over their first 5 or 6 months, Vincent was able to teach Jonathan many of the fundamentals of running. Communicating with an autistic individual presented a plethora of challenges and questions for coach Vincent.

How do I teach Jonathan how to pace himself?

How hard can I push Jonathan without going over the line? Where is the line?

As our runs get longer, how do I help him deal with aches and pains?

How do I make him drink water and electrolytes, even when he doesn't understand why?

Vincent, much like many a special needs instructor, needed to be creative when approaching Jonathan. Jonathan's hyperactivity made it difficult for him to follow directions, but during runs it became a significant strength. Jonathan's high energy was perfectly contained as he ran, only feuling him as their training runs got longer and longer and Jonathan emulated Vincent's technique. Vincent would point, touch, exaggerate or make faces. Anything to help Jonathan understand the nuances of running that he couldn't comprehend verbally.

Over their first year of running together, Jonathan developed a nice rapport with Vincent. Jonathan began dropping his elephant-like 15 minutes per mile down to under 10 minutes a mile. Amazingly, the once reticent Jonathan started to show a true affinity for the sport. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, running days, Jonathan would return home on the bus from the Genesis School and immediately put on his running clothes. The same young man who needed mommy to grip his waistline to keep him going was now eagerly putting on his sneakers in anticipation of running 3,5, or 7 miles.

It was clear once again. Jonathan WAS a runner and Olga was in this for the long haul.

Although Jonathan couldn't verbally articulate his new found love for running, he had an unmistakable joy about him. Running was an outlet for his boundless energy, and the benefits were permeating every aspect of his life. Physically, Jonathan dropped nearly 22 pounds over that first year. He became lean, fit and strong. His coach began extending the lengths of their training runs and Jonathan got faster. Socially, running with Rolling Thunder afforded Jonathan the opportunity to meet and run alongside many different types of people. Jonathan began to be more comfortable around larger crowds of people and seemed to truly enjoy the camaraderie with his running group and seeing similar faces at races all over Long Island.

A year into training, coach Vincent and Jonathan's family couldn't have been happier. Jonathan had fully embraced the sport of running and had developed a wonderful relationship with his two coaches. Coach Vincent recruited another amazing volunteer in Suzanne Gamez who immediately fell in love with Jonathan. Vincent and Sue fully incorporated Jonathan into their running schedule, and Jonathan was flourishing as an athlete.

As far as Olga was concerned, at least one of her jobs as a special needs parent was fulfilled. She was able to give Jonathan the gift of running and his obvious and genuine love for the sport rewarded her in unimaginable ways. Every time Jonathan smiled while lacing up his sneakers or sprinted to the Finish Line at the end of the race, Olga's heart swelled with love. Her profoundly autistic son, who at age 18 still needed adult supervision to use the restroom, shower and eat, was a passionate athlete.

Under normal circumstances, Jonathan's wonderful story would end here and Jonathan would run 5ks and 10ks for the rest of his life.

His evolution from complete non-runner to serious athlete had been a wonderful journey, but it was only the first step of the journey to come.


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