Kids compete to raise autism awareness

Published Aug 12, 2014 at 1:59 pm (Updated Aug 12, 2014 at 1:59 pm)

A jubilant Bobby Wiggers sprinted full speed ahead, shouting for all to hear. “I made it,” he cried with delight. “I crossed the finish line,” he added triumphantly.

Equally pleased and proud was Grace Knight. She said she wasn’t at all nervous. And, although a little tired, Grace, too, added that she was glad to finish the race.

For any child, completing their first one-mile fun run is cause for celebration. However, Bobby, 9, suffers from autism and Grace, 6, is severely visually impaired.

“It’s so emotional seeing them participate and have fun,” said Bobby’s mom, Stephanie.

With the assistance of some very special companions, Grace and Bobby certainly enjoyed their experience. While Grace ran with her father, Steve, Hailey Poe accompanied Bobby and his dad, Tom. Together they finished third and fourth overall, respectively.

Held in conjunction with the third annual Kids Competing For Autism Speaks Triathlon, this particular race at the Settler’s Park Wave Pool was part of a promotion to draw awareness for the disorder that strikes one in 68 children.

“The neat thing about our event,” explained race director Lori Poe, “is that it allows kids to help their friends who are special-needs athletes.”

During the triathlon, the able-bodied athletes donned T-shirts they designed. They list the names of their special-needs friends for whom they are competing. In addition, some of these same tri-athletes assist their friends in their endeavors to compete. This year marked the first time the event was coupled with a fun run/walk. Last year, the triathlon featured a special-needs swim race.

“When we got here,” said Stephanie, “[Bobby] saw the pool and wanted to do that. He is used to swimming,” she added with a laugh. “It took a little extra time to prepare him, but he wanted to run.”

Whether or not she is the cross-country and track at Chartiers Valley High School, Poe wants everybody to run and compete. Her goal is to eventually have special needs kids do the triathlon or compete in a relay-style race with other athletes. “Kids with special needs don’t have a whole lot of opportunities to do things. Wouldn’t it be great if we gave them an opportunity to do so?”

The Knight family of Venetia thought Poe’s optimism contagious. Hence, Ruth and Steve Knight took advantage of the opportunity to enter their daughters in the competition. Sophie, 10, did the triathlon while Grace, 6, participated in the fun run.

“This is a wonderful event not only for able-bodied children, but for those facing extreme challenges,” said Ruth.

While Steve’s challenge has been adjusting to America – he and his family moved here from Britain nearly three years ago when Eastman Chemical transferred him – Sophie’s test was distance. She had participated in two other triathlons, both sponsored by the Upper St. Clair Community and Recreation Center at Boyce-Mayview Park. Sophie competed for her sister and to raise awareness for Nystagmus, an eye condition that reduces or limits vision.

Sophie said her goal was just to complete the race. “Because the distances were longer, this one was the hardest one I have done. So I just wanted to finish it.”

After swimming two laps in the Settler’s Cabin Wave Pool, Sophie bicycled two miles and ran a mile. Sophie said she liked cycling best because she was ‘good at it’ and not being the best swimmer, she could ‘catch up’ on her time during that segment of the event.

Sophie added she looks forward to the day that Grace can participate in a triathlon. Grace enters first grade this fall, but her parents are excited because she has been accepted into the second-grade math program. Grace is also athletically inclined. She and her sister swim at Boyce-Mayview Park and family pools. They also ride bikes at Bower Hill Elementary School, which is close to home and affords traffic-free riding.

“Yes,” Sophie said when asked about children with special needs. “I think all should be involved in athletics.”

Because they see how their daughter is more determined to do things, the Knights have a huge amount of empathy for those with autism as well as disabilities. “This is an exciting event,” they said. “It creates awareness and it would be great to see it eventually accommodate all kids.”

The Wiggers agreed. “It’s wonderful,” said Stephanie, “because it’s an opportunity to raise awareness for autism and focus on abilities rather than disabilities.”

Nine years ago, Stephanie and Tom Wiggers focused on possibilities as they welcomed the first of their three sons into the world. Bobby hit all the mileposts. However, while he still progressed, he started exhibiting delayed brain development, difficulty in social interaction as well as verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.

Seven months pregnant with her second son, Stephanie found out Bobby had Autism. Ten days after she gave birth to Brady, now 7, the official diagnosis was rendered.

The news ‘devastated’ Stephanie. “I felt like my whole world was coming apart. There was worry about the future.”

For Stephanie, the future held another son. Owen, 4, completes the family.

“Every time I’m pregnant, that’s in the back of my mind, because Autism is four times more prevalent in boys,” Stephanie said.

While Brady participated in his first triathlon and all the male Wiggers competed in the fun run, Stephanie watched with pride. She noted how difficult it has been at times to see other people’s children, friends she grew up with and attended school with, leading normal lives.

“It’s hard sometimes seeing pictures that friends put on Facebook of their kids playing hockey or of baseball championships,” Stephanie said. “When I see Bobby in events like this though, then that all goes away.”

What also has faded away are the ‘stupid’ things that used to concern Stephanie. Those are ‘meaningless’ now she says. “You appreciate the little things in life,” she added.

For Stephanie and Tom, they have ‘slowed down’ enough to savor many moments. The first time Bobby said, “I love you.” When he gave a ‘spontaneous’ hug. When he interacts with his brothers or others in an appropriate way. “He’s doing really well,” Stephanie noted.

Bobby and all the competitors at the Kids Competing For Autism Speaks Triathlon did particularly well in the end. “The best part,” Stephanie said, “is when they put that medal around their neck whether they are disabled or not. I love watching them cross that finish line. It’s exciting. They know they have done something that truly is extraordinary.”

comments powered by Disqus