WESTFIELD, Mass. -- I lucked out Saturday. I wound up at an athletic venue so enchanting that it didn't matter that the cold blustered and the wind bit. I attended the 2013 New England Collegiate Conference Cross Country Championships, and I dare claim that's enviable.
In the wonder I got to wonder: Would John Southworth finish his 8K when he'd spent all of college at 5K and only lately 6K? Would the senior from Division III Elms College in Chicopee eight miles to the east uphold the NCAA's decision last week to grant a waiver and let a volunteer coach run the course alongside him? Would this 24-year-old man with Down's Syndrome, in his debut in the men's race rather than a separate provisional, help his five-man team cobble together the five finishers required to score points?
Just before it began, I got to think about Southworth's generation, which I admire. I got to hear his slightly worried mother, Ann, tell stories about flooded tear ducts. I listened to her tell about that time in high school, when John ran toward the finish well after everyone else, and all the teams in the meet interrupted their post-race rituals to run out to him and then run in with him. I got to hear her say, "The respect the other kids have for him, it's so genuine, it's amazing to watch. Their empathy is incredible, and it makes them better people. It's pretty special. I don't know that in all my years of seeing John run, that I've ever seen anybody be mean to him. I should have kept a diary of all the things that have happened."
I got to hear his father, David, a former lacrosse captain at Yale, say this: "It all goes back to the emotions you have when you have a child born with Down's Syndrome. First, it dashes all your normal hopes and dreams for the kid. You think, 'I guess I won't have the fun of seeing him play little-league sports and high school sports.' So it's one of life's ironic surprises that he was on a high school team and now is here on a college team."
Senior teammate Jesse Zina, on what he learned from Southworth: "That anything's possible." Freshman teammate Joey Sirois: "He's probably the only kid I've ever seen finish a race with a big smile on his face." Head coach Matt Dyer: "As much as we provide an opportunity for him, it's more him providing a great opportunity for our athletes." Zina: "He's definitely improved." Sirois: "He's the epitome of a hard worker."
Off they went, the whole dedicated mass representing seven colleges in the lid-lifting men's race, around beautiful Stanley Park at Westfield State College. Off went Southworth, too, along with Matt Hegarty, the volunteer assistant and Southworth's former Cathedral High teammate. At previous events, he had gone off as a one-off, solo between the men's and women's races, but now he manned the same race as the individual winner, Nick Green of Lesley College, who would finish in a bruising 27 minutes. Hegarty would serve as Southworth's GPS as the course differed from its norm. The eight kilometers would take Southworth about 65 minutes, by Dyer's calculation.
So they all circled the park once, the whole stream of runners, in individuals and clusters, then here came Southworth with Hegarty, who would say, "I actually felt more nervous. I know John probably didn't feel nervous at all. I haven't raced in a few years now," and he had to coach carefully, make sure Southworth didn't become overwhelmed. Hegarty: "It just seemed like the biggest race of my life, even though I wasn't actually racing."
They circled again, and on the third go-around, all the frontrunners bolted into the fine autumn forest per course, emerged and began reaching the finish way across the park. Roughly then, Southworth and Hegarty aimed into the forest portion, where a certain former lacrosse captain joined for a spell. Discouragement can come at this lonely portion, so Hegarty would boost morale and dredge smiles. They did stop to walk twice or thrice whereupon, Hegarty said, "We just count to three and then start up again." They remained hidden in there for a good while, so that at one point Ann, standing at forest's edge, fished out her phone and dialed David for an update.
They would emerge soon, we learned.
And a minute later here they did come, around the corner, out the final path and back into the meadow portion of the park, to run its edges one last time. As they passed, the finished runners from Regis College who had gathered around a picnic table suspended their chatter, edged over toward the path and applauded this 24-year-old toward the finish of his career capstone.
Southworth's pace did seem to quicken as they reached the back edge of the park. Hegarty would point out how he thrives amid people and encouragement. David Southworth would say, "He knew the end was in sight so he was happy." Dyer would say, "It was even faster than we expected." Hegarty would say, "He was tough out there today." Within moments, there would be this post-race exchange:
Hegarty: "How do you feel?"
Hegarty: "How tired are you: little, big?"
Hegarty: "What if I gave you a 'middle,' too? Would it still be 'big?'"
All that would come, as would cheers, and hugs from parents and extended family, and high-fives from two of the runners from Southern Vermont College, and congratulations from conference officials and the smattering of people left at the finish. But just before all of that, Southworth and Hegarty turned the final corner between the trees and the road and steadily grew larger in view to those at the finish.
As they materialized, Southworth seemed to gather even more pace, bounding with oomph and with something that looked unmistakably like joy. Elms would fulfill the minimum five finishers and get a score (149) and a place (fifth). Southworth would finish in 62 minutes and 45 seconds. He neared the end of his longest run. He crossed. And as it's important in life to treat the eyes to as much beauty as possible, my two eyes in particular would render a judgment.
They would reckon this among the best things they ever saw.