Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Wed, 22 Oct 2003 08:22:17 -0400

Fast Finisher


(rerun from October 1996 RW)

My daughter Leslie was a slow starter in life. She arrived late, on Labor Day 1982, and was late leaving the hospital because of a blood disorder.

She gained only two pounds in her first six months, then almost died during heart surgery. Severe anemia, requiring several transfusions, complicated her recovery.

Oh yes, she also has Down's Syndrome and is deaf. She didn't sit up until she was two years old and didn't walk until she was almost four. She'll never talk.

But don't feel sorry for Leslie. She's healthy now.

If your picture of a Down's kid is slow-moving, forget it. If you think of deaf kids as wordless, forget that too. Neither description fits Leslie.

From the day she stood up and took her first steps, she has made up for lost time. And for what she lacks in voice, she makes up with sign language.

While living next door to a dairy, she took me there and made introductions in signs: "Cows, this is Dad. Dad, these are cows." She lives in a world where animals know her language, where there are no bad people and where the future is never more than a day away.

Of my three children, Leslie is the most high-energy. She makes Sarah (who's on the fast track in her newspaper job) and Eric (who was a good sprinter in high school) look sleepy by comparison.

Leslie is Ms. Sprinter. One of her favorite ways and places to spend a morning is playing at Hayward Field. This has been true since I first took her there almost as soon as she could walk.

Her signs for Hayward are "run" (around the track), "climb" (up and down the grandstands), "jump" (in the pole-vault pit) and "dig" (in the long-jump sand).

So it was only natural that she would enter the Special Olympics. We went to a meet together this spring.

"What does Leslie want to do?" asked the woman in charge.

"She likes to run," I told her. "Which distances do you have?"

"We can start her with the 50 meters. If she likes that, she can also do the 100."

Leslie lined up with the first three runners in the 50. She knew about the starting line and about running in lanes.

She'd already chosen her favorite lane, signing an "eight" to me. This left her all alone on the outside, and I had to coax her over to lane three.

She didn't understand about starts. The other two runners took off on time, while Leslie waited until they were 10 meters down the track before starting.

Even with the slow start, she caught one of the other two sprinters. Whereupon she flopped dramatically onto her back on the track, arms spread wide, eyes closed, tongue hanging out.

(She has watched too many races with me on TV. But she didn't notice that it's distance runners, not sprinters, who flop down in exhaustion.)

The idea at Special Olympics is to award lots of medals -- to everyone if possible. The way to do this is to limit most of the heats to three people, and to treat each heat as a separate event with its own gold, silver and bronze medals.

This meant awards ceremonies went on all day. The announcement for Leslie's race came as, "The winners in the eighth heat of the 50 meters are..."

She knew just what to do on the victory stand. After having the medal draped around her neck, she pumped both arms for 10 seconds of triumph. I quietly but emotionally celebrated her years of it.

UPDATE. Leslie is 21 now but remains a perpetual child. That's okay with me. How many parents of someone her age still get to take them to the park, to the swimming pool, to G-rated movies and to eat off the kids' menu?

Special-education programs allow her to stay in high school until her 22nd birthday. She's in her last year at the Oregon School for the Deaf, where her signing and writing vocabularies grow by the week.


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