When you think of heroes in real life, the usual images come to mind — firefighter, cop, doctor, Captain Sully. But quite often, heroism comes from the person you might not expect, the least likely source of grace. The following story is one I can’t tell in person, because I become a bit, er…overwhelmed. I can say quite honestly that it is my privilege to tell it.
Last year, I went to my daughter’s middle school cross-country meet. To set the scene, it seems that kids who run cross-country are generally pretty good kids. It’s one of the few sports where personal achievement really seems to matter more than winning. The kids try their hardest, the coaches don’t seem to care a whole lot about who placed where, and you get cheered no matter where you finish. When the girls are running, the boys plant themselves along the course and bellow encouragement, and the girls do the same for the boys. I like to stand mid-course; the kids have to pass me a few times as they wind their way around, and I have a clear view of the finish line.
At this one particular race, one of the girl runners had Downs syndrome, and perhaps because one of my favorite cousins does as well, I kind of fell in love with her. For the sake of this story, let’s call her Ashley. Ashley was tremendously excited; I think it was her first meet, and she was jumping around, chattering to her parents, stretching with great enthusiasm.
When the runners lined up, she had the biggest smile I’d ever seen. You could tell she just loved being on the team, part of the excitement. She was literally jumping up and down, having an absolute a blast. Then the whistle blew, the race began, and the girls sprinted off. Ashley immediately fell behind. She was quite slow — possibly as slow as I am, and much, much slower than even the back of the pack, which quickly outdistanced her.
Perhaps, like my cousin, Ashley had a heart condition. I don’t know. Whatever the case, she trudged along the two-mile course, falling further and further behind. The effort started to show. Her smile dropped, she was breathing hard. Her mom and dad shouted encouragingly, and all of us other parents clapped and said, “Keep going, honey!” as she went by, but she was hurting. She’d trot a few yards, then walk, and her sunshiny mood faded bit by bit. Before she was even halfway done, the winners had crossed the finish line. Ashley kept going, across the field, along the road, up through the trees, past the soccer pitch as the other girls streamed down homestretch to the cheers of their teammates.
Finally, Ashley came to the last leg of the race, trudging along, on the verge of tears. Every single other girl had finished, was waiting in line to record their times, drinking water, laughing with their friends. Ashley knew she was last.
And then she saw something really remarkable. Up ahead, about fifty yards from the finish line, the entire boys team from her school was waiting for her. “Come on, Ashley!” they shouted. “You’re almost there!” She broke back into a trot. “You’re doing it, Ashley! You’re looking great!” Those boys didn’t just wait for her. As she reached them, they flanked her and followed her, and Ashley broke into a sprint. And then the girls, all of them, on her team and everyone else, all the other coaches, all the other parents, saw her coming. They started cheering and screaming, and when Ashley came down the home stretch, she was flying.
When she crossed that finish line, she burst into tears. Those boys, those wonderful boys, hugged her and high-fived her and told her she was just great. Then all her teammates surrounded her, and it was pretty clear who won the day.
I can only imagine how that felt, how her parents felt. I myself was completely overcome. To this day, I can’t tell that story without crying. I’ve seen a lot of wonderful victories…the New York Giants beating the perfect team, my beloved Yankees stealing a Pennant or two. Nothing touches this.
In a world where so often we hear stories of the worst of people, those boys — those adolescent, middle-school boys — gave that little girl (and the rest of us) a memory to last a lifetime, and showed us the very best of the human heart.
Hats off, boys. And Ashley…you are my hero.