Abebe Bikila of Mendida, Ethiopia was added to his country’s Olympic team at the last minute just before they boarded a plane to the 1960 Rome games. Bikila was the replacement for the team’s star marathoner. The team sponsor, Adidas, gave Bikila a pair of shoes, but they were uncomfortable. So Abebe Bikila ran shoeless. This was no problem for he trained his whole life running barefoot. He won the marathon in a record time and took home the gold medal. During an interview, he explained why he ran barefoot. “I wanted the whole world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism.”
Yesterday afternoon my autistic son, running for the JV team in the 400m sprint, took his mark for the race. The gun fired and immediately Aaron’s left foot came entirely out of his shoe. He ran a few steps, stopped, and turned back around in dismay to see his empty sneaker. The hearts of the spectators, teammates, and officials just sank. No one felt it more than his mother and I and his grandfather as we stood by helpless. I stopped the video recorder. Deep down we expected to see our boy have a meltdown like he did so often when he was younger. Many Aspies deal with emotional overload in this way.
Nearly ten seconds had elapsed since the start with the rest of the racers now nearly 100 meters ahead. Aaron jammed his foot in and took off. I re-started the video. The voices of the crowd rose as Aaron miraculously started to catch up. By the third turn he was in close contention. He finished the race a mere fraction of a second behind third place.
Emboldened by this performance, the coach decided to have Aaron run again in the 200m coming up an hour later. He’d never run that distance before. It was a bitter cold and wet afternoon. But everyone stuck around to see what the kid would do with a second chance. He won the heat.
Later that evening as we reflected on the meet, I was afraid to bring up the shoe thing. I still did not know how he would react and I certainly did not want to cause my son to melt down. But the conversation was as natural and positive as could be. He was engaged and excited about what he had done. So I asked him what was going through his head at this precise moment as I handed him the short blip of video showing him losing the shoe. The video burst repeated over and over. Aaron laughed but said nothing.
“I didn’t know what to think. I thought I would have been disqualified. But when nothing happened, I got my shoe and ran. I knew it took me like nine seconds to get going since the gun so I had a lot to make up,” he said.
That number meant all the difference to Aaron. He knew what his regular 400m time was and he had every intention of hitting it despite the circumstances. He typically finishes between 0:59 and 1:00. He finished yesterday in 1:09. He knew in his heart he could have beaten the field had he not lost his shoe. He proved it an hour later in the 200m.
We talked about it again as I drove him to his youth group meeting that night. “This has been such a good year for me in high school,” he said. “I determined to do these things and they have all happened for me and I am so glad.” He mentioned his many activities, clubs, and teams that he has engaged in this year, things we thought impossible a few years ago. But yesterday, Aaron’s determination made him the hero of the meet. As parents, my wife and I have to keep reminding ourselves and determine to put into practice that our Aspie son can do whatever he puts his mind to. He is not locked in a world of his own. There is no stereotype autistic person. So we must always forget the past and realize that right now, despite the unknown, Aaron simply…can.