Monday, Sept. 1, 2014

Amy Donaldson: Triathletes give special needs children the chance to compete

By Amy Donaldson, Deseret News

Published: Sun, July 13 7:55 p.m. MDT

 Amber Foster and Reese Thorne cross the finish line of the Echo Triathlon on Saturday morning.

Amber Foster and Reese Thorne cross the finish line of the Echo Triathlon on Saturday morning.

(Carla Thorne)

COALVILLE — Reese Thorne can’t walk, let alone run 3.2 miles. The 10-year-old can’t ride a bike or swim a single stroke.

But Saturday morning, he crossed the finish line of TriUtah’s 13th annual Echo Triathlon at Echo Reservoir thanks to an elite athlete named Amber Foster. She pushed and pulled a specially designed stroller carrying Thorne through each leg of the race.

“I’m his legs,” Foster said of the 10-year-old who was born at 24 weeks with cerebral palsy and a rare genetic disorder called PCH type 2, which usually results in death by age 2. “Reese loves to race.”

In fact, he loves it so much, he was in tears awaiting the start of the 6:30 a.m. event in which a group of athletes and five special needs children completed a sprint distance triathlon (which is a half-mile swim, 20-mile bike ride and 3.2-mile run).

“Reese loves to be out and running,” Carla Thorne said. “The faster and longer you do it, the more he loves it.”

His parents may never have discovered Reese’s love of racing were it not for another local runner. Andrew McMahon started a nonprofit group called Push to the Finish 2 1/2 years ago that pairs children and adults with disabilities with runners for local charity races.

The 38-year-old hoped the experience would enrich the lives of those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate. The Thornes were among the first families to give it a try, and Carla Thorne said the effects have been transformative for Reese. In 25 months with Push to the Finish, Thorne has participated in 65 events. “I think it’s given him friends,” said Thorne, who has three older children. “It's educated people. It’s given him a chance to be just like normal kids, and just be part of society. Sometimes it’s really, really hard when you come with a lot of big equipment and a trach (a tube in the trachea that allows him to breathe with assistance but keeps him from talking). We’re not always an accepting society.”

But the same things that create barriers in some areas of his life have been embraced by the running community as they’ve made it possible for him to run as far as a half-marathon in the last two years.

“We have met so many good people in the running community,” Carla Thorne said. “I’m not really a runner, but I’ve done a few races with him. We’ve just made some really good friends. We also feel like it’s some education for people when Reese is out there.”

Foster, who is a member of the SBR Larry H. Miller Ford Provo Elite triathlon team, learned about Push to the Finish last year. It was too late in the triathlon season to organize anything official last year, but she began working with race organizers who embraced the idea of including as many children as possible.

Foster said she asked to be part of the program because she wanted to share the joy of her sport and find a way to help others.

“When you’re racing all the time, you’re kind of a taker,” said the 34-year-old of Saratoga Springs. “You’re not really giving back. You’re worried about getting better, about winning.”

But time was among the least of her concerns Saturday as she and her stepdad, Dave Cox, gave Thorne an experience he couldn’t enjoy on his own. Cox pulled him in the water so Foster could monitor the event from a kayak, and then she pulled him on a bike for 30 miles and pushed him in the 5-kilometer run.

Members of her SBR team competed with four other children — Karston Fox,
 Izzy Robison, 
Zoey Buerkle and 
Elsha Stockseth.

Foster said her experience with Push to the Finish has given her insight into both the unique challenges and joys of raising children with special needs. Her respect for their parents has deepened, and her affection for the children has grown.

The privilege of pushing the children causes one to think about the gift of competing in a completely new way. Her experience with the children ranks among her most cherished memories in a sport where she’s enjoyed significant success.

“I’ve qualified for some pretty big events,” Foster said. “It was just awesome to give them an opportunity. I’m his legs. All of us, Karston, Izzy, Zoey, Elsha and Reese, they can’t do it without us. My hope is that parents see this and want to get their kids involved. … This could ignite something in them.”

That’s what Carla Thorne hopes, as well.

Like most things in life, there are obstacles, questions and fear of the unknown. But finding a way is worth it, as it’s opened an entirely new world for her youngest son.

“I was really nervous about the open water swim,” she said. Foster and race organizers took the time to walk parents through the process, answering questions and making adjustments. The way the children interacted with the athletes, and the way the kids were received by all the competitors eases any anxiety. And the ultimate reward comes when she sees the joy in her son’s eyes as they look up his times and discuss his experiences.

Foster said the most moving moment for her came at the end of the swim portion of the race.

The athletes pulling the five children started at 6:30 a.m. — before any of the other competitors in the event. As they finished their half-mile swim, about 500 stood on the shore waiting to start their race. They stopped their preparations as the swimmers and children approached, applauding the group’s effort.

“There was a huge group of people cheering for them as they came out of the water,” Foster said. “That was so touching.”

Reese Thorne may not look or act like most 10-year-old little boys, but what he wants from life isn’t any different than any other child his age.

“We all want our kids to feel happy and be accepted,” Foster said. “We all want to know that the community, that people outside his family love and care about him.”

Twitter: adonsports EMAIL: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

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