Grassroots Special Needs Program Seeks the Paralympic Dream

Rolling Thunder at the 2011 Junior Olympics National Championships last summer, Steve Cuomo back row, right. Courtesy of Steve Cuomo.

On any given Saturday morning, there are countless 5K races going on around the country.  Dan Renahan, a recent college graduate of Long Island University, won one of these 5K races in 16 minutes and 20 seconds on a Saturday in September.  As usual, a local newspaper reporter wrote a short article on the event and how it raised thousands of dollars for charity.1 But what the newspaper reporter missed was exactly what made this day so special: he did not realize that Renahan, who had just won a race raising money for an autism foundation, was autistic himself.

Renahan ran as a member of the Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program team.  Almost every member of the Rolling Thunder team has some disability.  The majority of the disabled team members carry an intellectual disability, like an autism spectrum disorder or Down Syndrome, while others carry physical disabilities.  Other members of the Rolling Thunder team also performed well that Saturday.  Trent Hampton, a runner with visual impairment, finished eleventh, while Steven Cuomo, Jr., a runner with cerebral palsy and autism, finished 17th.  For the race organizers, these results came as a complete surprise.  But for the Rolling Thunder runners, the race was just another race in which they again competed against able-bodied runners and again, in Renahan’s case, beat them all.

Steven Cuomo, the father of Steven Cuomo Jr. and the head coach of the Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program team, has made a routine of achieving such results in road races across the country.  He founded the program for athletes with disabilities 15 years ago.  He said he came up with the idea after a Special Olympics race.  In the weeks leading up to the race, Steven Jr., who had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy and autism years earlier, had been keeping up with his able-bodied brother Jonathan on training runs.  After those runs, the elder Mr. Cuomo was confident that Steven Jr. could keep up with Jonathan in a race.  So to prove to himself and, more importantly, to his son Steven Jr. that he could compete against his brother, he wanted to race them against each other in the Special Olympics meet.  When the elder Mr. Cuomo asked for permission to do so, he was aware that asking an athlete that was disabled undergo the same physical and psychological rigors of competing against an able-bodied competitor was totally against the spirit of the Special Olympics.  Expectedly, the Special Olympics officials, whose goal was to celebrate achievement in athletes who were disabled in a noncompetitive environment, turned the proposal down.

That day, the elder Mr. Cuomo went home asking why a disabled child, who had the physical ability to run alongside able-bodied runners, could not race competitively like any other runner.  The answer to his question was one he knew all along, that the officials at the Special Olympics were just another group of people who chose to see Steven Jr. as a disabled child first, and a runner second.  Days later, the elder Mr. Cuomo formed Rolling Thunder in Long Island, New York, with the mindset that the club would be what he called the “anti-Special Olympics”.  At practices and at races, he vowed never to give his runners special treatment in the way he saw the Special Olympics did.  He would coach the team just like any high school track team and enter his runners not in Special Olympics meets, but in mainstream road races.

Today, little has changed in how Mr. Cuomo runs the practices.  The team practices five days a week and all of the practices are mandatory.  And like any high school team or college team, the team runs two workouts a week.  These workouts include the typical tempo runs and interval sessions.  Mr. Cuomo also keeps track of weekly mileage for his top runners and schedules them for Sunday long runs.  Mr. Cuomo, a former Penn Relays champion and a competitor at the Olympic Trials, wants the coaching he received to be no different than the coaching he is giving to these runners and wheelchair racers.

Parents have certainly taken notice of their child’s achievements.  They especially take notice when they see how the Rolling Thunder program has prepared autistic runners like Joseph Choinski to join their high school cross country and track teams. Additionally, writers from The New York Times2 have taken note of these athletes’ accomplishments.  The program has also received a $20,000 grant from the Autism Speaks Foundation, the world’s largest autism advocacy group, to buy uniforms.3

But most importantly, Mr. Cuomo has gotten the athletes themselves to both believe in themselves and to develop a lifelong love of running.  One of the top runners at Rolling Thunder is Mikey Brannigan.  Just before joining Rolling Thunder as a ten-year-old, Mikey, who has autism and is non-verbal, was doing poorly in school.  He would also get in tantrums and run out of the house and onto the street.  And since he was so fast, even at ten, no one could catch him.  This situation forced Mikey’s parents to decide between forcing Mikey to live at home under constant lockdown or to put him in the care of a group home.  But before they made their decision, Mikey’s parents found out about Rolling Thunder and signed him up for the program.  However, unable to cope with the difficult practices that Mr. Cuomo held almost every day of the week, Mikey had made every excuse to his parents to not go to the mandatory practices.  However, Mikey’s parents had insisted that he go, and after a couple weeks they had noticed that Mikey was enjoying the practices.  Soon after, he had stopped his tantrums and performed better in school.  His improvement was so drastic that Mikey’s parents could not believe they were in the process of picking a group home for their son months earlier.4

Four years later, he has exceeded all expectations and today is one of the top freshman runners in the state.  As an eighth grader, he ran 4 minutes and 28 seconds for 1600 meters, which is just nine meters short of a mile, and 9 minutes and 41 seconds for 3200 meters, which is just short of 2 miles.  In his freshman cross country season this past fall, he ran 16 minutes and 19 seconds in the 5K.5 This past summer, he won the intermediate boys division of the Northeast Region Junior Olympics in the 1500 meters and the 800 meters.6,7

Courtesy Tony Atkin, Wikimedia Commons

Mr. Cuomo, who has seen runners develop for 15 years now, does not bother with the scientific details of why running is such a great outlet for runners like Mikey and the 124 other athletes he coaches.  He thinks that running’s calming effect has something to do with the simplicity of running and how, for autistic runners, it is an activity that uses up the anxious energy that they build up throughout the day.  The running club also provides for these athletes a community.  Mr. Cuomo also says that one of his favorite moments came at the past Junior Olympic National Championships in July.  He saw his athletes joke with each other over dinner, as wheelchair athletes shared stories with autistic runners and runners with cerebral palsy joked around with teammates that were visually impaired.  The story reminded Mr. Cuomo of another key facet of his program, that he does not weigh one disability as more debilitating than another.  He thinks doing so focuses too much on their disability and ignores the special talents that each of his athletes brings to the team.

Rolling Thunder is only growing by the day and so are Mr. Cuomo’s aspirations.  As the chair for athletics for disabled at USA Track and Field, he regularly attends executive meetings at both the USA Track and Field and the US Paralympic Committee headquarters.  At the USA Track and Field meetings this December, Mr. Cuomo lobbied for USA Track and Field to become the national governing body for intellectually disabled track (ID) and field athletes.  This legislation, which will not be put up for a final vote until next year, is very important for ID track and field athletes.  As a national governing body, USA Track and Field will be able put in place a sturdy framework for selecting ID athletes for the US Paralympic team.  Currently, no national governing body exists for ID track and field athletes, so ID athletes wishing to qualify for the team have little guarantee of obtaining a spot on the US Paralympic team.

Additionally, the US Paralympic Committee, which receives millions of dollars each year to develop Paralympians, did not make any mention on how to specifically develop ID track and field athletes for the upcoming Paralympics in London in its 2010 and 2011 performance plans for track and field.  What is more disconcerting is that the US Paralympic Committee wrote these plans after the November 2009 announcement that reopened ID competition at the London 2012 games.8,9 Additionally, Mr. Cuomo has had no help from the US Paralympic Committee in setting up USA Track and Field as a national governing body for ID athletes.  Mr. Cuomo, who started Rolling Thunder as a protest against the Special Olympics, now believes the greatest obstacle for ID athletes is in fact the US Paralympic Committee and its unwillingness to treat ID athletes fairly.

Because the new qualification framework will not be instituted until next December’s vote, after the London games, he has shifted his focus to the 2016 games in Rio.  He is looking to expand the program nationally and wants to start Rolling Thunder chapters in New Jersey and across the country.  He said that once a nationwide framework is in place to train intellectually disabled athletes, top runners like Mikey Brannigan will start appearing much more frequently.  Cuomo tells me all these goals with one fact constantly in his mind – that he will not receive a single dime for his work.  He will work free, just as he has been for almost 15 years.  But what motivates him is the dream that one day the people of the US will be as proud of their intellectually disabled track and field Paralympians as their able-bodied track and field Olympians.  For any Paralympian to achieve the fame of a Michael Johnson or a Carl Lewis may seem hard to fathom, but this is precisely what drives Mr. Cuomo towards his future projects.

References

  1. Natick Patch.  “Flutie 5k Raises more than $60000 for Autism”. http://natick.patch.com/articles/flutie-5k-raises-more-than-60000-for-autism (Accessed December 31, 2011).
  2. Kilgannon, Corey. “Silent Running.” The New York Times, sec. The Island, June 03, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/03/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/03colli.html?pagewanted=print (accessed December 28, 2011).
  3. Finn, Robin. “Autistic Teenager Runs, Makes Strides.” The New York Times, sec. The Island, November 14, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/03/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/03colli.html?pagewanted=print (accessed December 28, 2011).
  4. Autism Speaks Foundation, “Expand Rolling Thunder Running Team Promoting Inclusion, Fitness, and Social Skills for Autistic Spectrum Youth and Adults.” Accessed December 28, 2011. http://www.autismspeaks.org/family-services/grants/expand-rolling-thunder-running-team-promoting-inclusion-fitness-and-social-sk?destination=about-us/grant-search/results/taxonomy:11516.
  5. Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program. “Mikey Branigan”. Accessed December 28, 2011 http://www.rtsnp.org/Mikey_Brannigan.html.
  6. NY Runners.com.  “Mike Branigan”.  Accessed December 28, 2011, http://ny.milesplit.com/athletes/1674760-mike-branigan.
  7. Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program. “Mikey Branigan”. Accessed December 28, 2011. http://www.rtsnp.org/Mikey_Brannigan.html.
  8. United States Olympic Committee, “US Paralympics Track and Field 2011 Athlete and Sport Program Plan.” Accessed January 1, 2012. http://assets.usoc.org/assets/documents/attached_file/filename/43864/U.S._Paralympics_Track_and_Field_2011_Athlete_and_Sport_Program_Plan.pdf.
  9. Desert Challenge Games, “US Paralympics Track and Field 2011 Athlete and Sport Program Plan.” Accessed January 1, 2012. http://www.desertchallengegames.com/uploads/2010_U.S._Paralympics_Track_and_Field_High_Performance_Plan.pdf
  10. Atkin, Tony, Running Track, Par. 2006, Image. Wikimedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Running_Track,_Par_-_geograph.org.uk_-_143484.jpg

Evan Jin is a second-year student at the University of Chicago majoring in biology. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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