47: Finish Lines

47: Finish Lines

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive

Finish Lines

Most people run a race to see who is fastest. I run a race to see who has the most guts.

~Steve Prefontaine

Alex started running competitively when he was a sophomore in high school. It was hard to imagine him on a cross country team — or any running team. He had such funny little running steps as a young child. It was one of those things you just had to see . . . he wasn’t fast and looked suspiciously like a trotting cartoon character. But it all clicked as he ran through woods and obstacles that year. The runners on his team kept each other going, finish lines beckoned, and running became huge in Alex’s life.

There’s something about high school sports — the way seasons are determined by sign-ups, practices, and events. The crisp days of changing leaves, wooded trails, and pounding sneakers evolved to frigid winds and pungent odors at an indoor track, and finally to green grass and longer days. It was heaven to watch the last traces of a frigid New England winter dissolve into temperate breezes, determined buds, and spring track sign-ups.

Alex came blasting through the door, carrying his backpack and stories of the day . . . his unfair Spanish test, whatever they were serving up in the cafeteria that was taken from the biotech lab, and Special Olympics coaching. Special Olympics coaching? “I signed up to volunteer,” he said. “It starts tomorrow. Sam’s volunteering also. It’s right before my track practice. And we get our athlete assignments tomorrow!”

I can still remember Alex’s excitement the next morning as he rushed to grab his team jacket and get to the bus stop. “Today’s going to be wicked cool,” he said. “Ari’s coaching too. A lot of us are.” Cute girls. Of course.

“Good luck with your athlete,” I said. “I’ll see you after practice!”

I was in the kitchen trying to make a casserole out of droopy leftovers when Alex came home that afternoon looking like a typical high school athlete. His messy hair was soaked with sweat, and he had that energy I had come to expect in him after a good run. But before he could say a word, I knew something was bugging him. “Mom, I got Keith.”

“Who is Keith?”

“At Special Olympics — my athlete is Keith. He’s the same age as me, and he doesn’t talk at all. He just makes noises. I don’t think he understands anything I say. I can’t get him to run, so I basically just stand there. I really wanted to do this! When I signed up, I even told the coach he could count on me every spring, but I don’t know how to work with Keith. It’s not fair. I better not get him next year.”

Well this is going well, I thought. And I opened the fridge wondering what culinary perfection might suddenly materialize to salvage dinner. It was only the first day. Surely, by the end of the week, Alex would have a whole new perspective.

But on Friday, Alex came home from school and slumped down on the kitchen floor. “I don’t like coaching,” he said. “I can’t get Keith to do anything. It’s really awkward.”

“Did you talk to your coach about it?” I asked.

“He told all of us that we are the coaches, so we need to be patient and encouraging. But this is impossible.”

Days turned into weeks marked by Alex’s track meets, goals, wins, and losses. Alex didn’t talk too much about Special Olympics training, so I didn’t push it; but I knew he was there each week trying to figure out Keith, and I imagined that Keith was trying to figure out Alex too.

Watching Alex’s races was always amazing for me. At one meet, after his relay, he joined me in the grass. “That was a great race!” I told him, wondering when my little boy had grown into this runner with muscles and grace. “It’s wild how we all push ourselves,” he said. “I mean, we all get what we have to do, who we pass the baton to, what our goals are. It must be so hard for Keith — so scary not to understand what we’re telling him or what a finish line is all about. I can tell what a lot of his noises mean, and I think he really likes to run. But he can’t tell anyone too much about what he feels. His world is hard. Everything is so different for him.”

Before I could respond, a couple of Alex’s teammates whisked him off to watch the girls run. His fading sneakers neared the crowds just beyond the track and then disappeared into a sea of colorful feet — that rainbow of spectators waiting for action. As if on cue, the starting gun exploded, the crowd cheered, and runners took off in perfect rhythm.

The Special Olympics competitions were held at a local college campus, and Alex got up super early that morning. He grabbed his necessities — camera, cereal bars, and cell phone — and prepared to catch the bus that would bring him to this all-day marathon. He seemed nervous — preoccupied — as I watched him stuff last-minute items into his sports bag. “Are you excited, Coach?” I asked.

“Definitely,” he answered. “I hope it’s okay. I hope Keith stays on the track. That’s the hardest thing — helping him to stay on the track.”

I have to admit, I was anxious all day waiting for Alex to get home. I wondered how it was going, how Keith would fare against other athletes who were far more communicative and responsive . . . how Alex would fare with other student coaches who had made more progress and formed deeper bonds with their athletes. It felt like forever until I heard the creak of the garage door and Alex’s familiar footsteps on the stairs. I braced myself.

“Hey,” I said, waiting for Alex’s familiar energy.

“Hey,” he responded.

“So?”

“Keith did great,” Alex said slowly. “I mean really great. He stayed on the track for almost a lap. He didn’t cross the finish line, but today was his personal best. He got a medal. He wouldn’t let go of that medal for the rest of the day — you should have seen him holding it! And he sat with me after . . . we just hung out. That kid has guts. He really does.”

And with that, Alex brushed by me and headed upstairs. The breeze he created was gentle, like a changing season or the passage of time. “Mom,” he called back.

“Yes?”

“I requested Keith for next year.”

~Carol S. Rothchild

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