Rolling Thunder: Racing Across America

Connetquot State Park

For the Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program—a running and wheelchair racing club based in Long Island, New York for athletes with disabilities—the Sunday morning run is the last run of the training week.  At 8 AM one Sunday morning in December, the distance runners on the team gathered at the gates of Connetquot State Park and prepared for the longest run of the week.  Some runners discussed whether they needed to run eight or nine miles to make their weekly mileage goal.  Others talked about the upcoming holiday party for the club and how they could not wait to watch the Jets and Giants games that day.  When the run finally started, every runner went off in groups of three and four through winding trails that branched off every quarter mile or so.  I ran to keep up with the lead group because I did not have a chance of finding myself out of the woods without them.  And turning around a mile into the run, I saw, to my surprise, no parents following behind us in case we got lost or needed help.  It was only after about an hour of running through twisting paths and talking about Tim Tebow and the start of the NHL season that the group of runners and I saw the parents waiting in their cars back at the starting point.

One could talk endlessly about the benefits of a program like Rolling Thunder from a medical standpoint.  For teenagers on the autism spectrum that have trouble communicating in school, the program gives these adolescents a strong group of friends that they can look forward to running long-distance with on Sunday mornings.  It also gives developmentally disabled runners the confidence to do things on their own, away from the constant watch of parents and caretakers.  Additionally, running takes away the nervous energy associated with psychiatric disorders.  It also keeps childhood hypertension and obesity at bay.  These benefits stand out when one considers the much more popular alternative, the Special Olympics.  Rarely do athletes in the Special Olympics have the ability to train and compete outside the supervision of their parents.  And rarely do they have the opportunity to follow a day-by-day training program that develops discipline, as well as allows them the opportunity to forge close friendships in a sporting team environment.

In spite of all these benefits, there are many problems with how a program like this one can branch out nationally.  For one, a person would have to convince skeptical parents about the benefits of putting athletes with disabilities under such training regimens.  Doctors and support networks can spread the word about such programs to caretakers, but can do little else.  And studies show that families that have chronically ill or developmentally disabled children often get into a routine of treating these children as dependents even when they reach age 18 and higher.  The prospect of having their children try to develop a training routine on their own may frighten many family members, who fear that too much independence for the child will hurt him or her.  One might even guess that this need to maintain the child’s dependent status may have a connection with the popularity of such noncompetitive events like the Special Olympics.

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

But medical ethicists believe that the problem may have even earlier roots.  They trace the problem back to the first diagnosis of the child’s developmental disorder, and how the parents of these children may have received very dire prognoses.  These prognoses then altered the family’s mindset greatly and may have led to overcompensations in the amount of care needed for the child.  So what may be more effective than suggesting to parents that their children may be very capable of participating in mainstream athletics is to give the parents a clear prognosis to begin with.1 And with the knowledge from recent physiological studies suggesting that even Down’s Sydrome patients can receive tremendous physiological gains from intense exercise, doctors can make even more clear prognoses about the children’s capacity for physical activity.2

A second problem deals with social norms and how caretakers and doctors alike all too often accept these norms as fact. They believe, for example, that disabled children will simply never play sports on a competitive level.3 This problem is much more difficult to resolve.  However, the Paralympics and its international platform to showcase disabled athletes have played a major role in changing these perceptions.  The re-inclusion of the intellectually disabled classification will only do more to strengthen this cause.

A third problem is that programs like Rolling Thunder that focus on developing athletes with disabilities, namely intellectual disabilities, into formidable competitors in able-bodied competitions do not exist in many parts of the country.  One cause of this problem is the great responsibility a program director must have.  He or she must deal with technicalities like insurance liabilities.  He or she must also have the willingness to teach these athletes that have been sheltered from competitive environments how to push themselves during the last mile of race.  This person must also work to continually persuade protective parents that the best thing they can do for an athlete new to the program is to keep driving him or her to practice, in spite of the athlete’s complaints about the difficulty of the first few practices.  However, people are willing to take up these challenges, as people from as far as Idaho and California have contacted Rolling Thunder about starting new chapters.  If these chapters do succeed in forming successful programs, one can be assured of one thing – that on Sunday mornings, a runner with a disability will be able to enjoy the thrill of a run out of the supervision of overprotective parents, alongside his or her very best friends.


  1. McBrien, Dianne. “Parental Influence on Level of Functioning in a Child with Down Syndrome.” Virtual Mentor: American Medical Association Journal of Ethics. 8. no. 10 (2006): 639-702.
  2. Westendorp, Marieke, Suzanne Houwen, Esther Hartman, and Chris Visscher. “Are gross motor skills and sports participation related in children with intellectual disabilities?.” Research in Developmental Disabilities. 32. no. 3 (2011): 1147-53.
  3. Right to Play, “Harnessing the Power of Sport for the Development of Peace: Recommendations for Governments.” Last modified January 8, 2010.
  4. Kunkel, Andrew, “Connetquot Park.” Image. Flickr. Taken on November 8, 2008.

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