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HMS cross country: Ian Witt is 'really something special'

Ian Witt flashes a thumbs-up after a middle school cross-country meet earlier this fall.

Lisa Witt didn't know what to think when her 12 year-old son, Ian, asked for an iPod so he could listen to music and go for runs.

"He's never been that excited about running around in a circle on a track," she said. "But he's always watched his sister run and goes to her meets. So at the end of the summer we got him some headphones and he started going out on his runs."

Ian's sister, Grace, is a junior on the Hudson High School cross-country team. And it may seem typical for a 12 year-old boy to follow in the footsteps of his older sibling. But Ian isn't your typical 12 year-old. He has Down Syndrome, a genetic disorder that, according to the National Down Syndrome Society, is associated with physical growth delays, characteristic facial features and mild to moderate intellectual disability.

So Lisa and her husband, Chad, supervised Ian when he started going out on his solo runs. But then the sixth grader said he wanted to really be like his sister and join his Hudson Middle School cross-country team.

"So we asked his teachers and the district how they could support him because he would need an aide," Lisa said. "And they got that all lined up for him. They've been great."

Lisa, who along with her husband coaches track and field with Special Olympics Wisconsin in the spring, said Ian had competed in some field events with the Special Olympics team but didn't show much interest in running until this past summer. He also plays soccer year-round.

"That's been another great experience," Lisa said. "He's 12 but we put him in the U9 or U10 and those kids are about the same size and the same level. And he loves it."

If Lisa had any misgivings about her son running a mile-and-a-half each race as a member of his school's cross-country team this past fall, they were quickly wiped away.

"He's always been very competitive," she said. "He likes to win. So I wasn't sure how he would handle being in a race with 100 kids ahead of him. But he impressed me. He showed me that I should never underestimate him."

She said one of the coolest things about the experience was how supportive Ian's teammates have been.

"There was never a question of him having special needs," she said. "It's just been; how can we support him? Every one of the kids supports him and the coaches support him. It's cool to see the parents and the other kids who stick around to watch the whole race and encourage him."

And Ian has given plenty back to the team as well, as evidenced by a story his coach, middle school teacher Eric Wickstrom, shared with Lisa after one of his races.

"Right before the gun was about to go off for the boys race yesterday, I walked away from the starting line after getting the boys ready," Wickstrom said. "No sooner did I clear the starting area, and I hear someone yell out 'Coach!' I turn around and I see Ian calling me back to the start line. At this point ALL teams are at the line ready for the race to begin. I approach Ian, and I ask him if everything is alright. He tells me that he went to the bathroom and I say 'good!' Then he says to me, as I get down closer to his level, Ian puts his arms around me and tells me that I love you coach. I just about started to cry before responding that I love him too."

Lisa said Ian is like all kids. Whether they have special needs or not, they want to feel belonged and involved.

"That's what sports does," she said. "That's why Chad and I coach Special Olympics track. We have kids from eight to 30, all different physical abilities, and they always make my day. It's amazing when you see what sports does for kids."

And, as Ian has shown, what kids can do for sports.

"I love having your son on the team," Wickstrom told Lisa. "This has been one of the kindest teams that I've been apart of. Thank you, and thank you to Ian. The world is a more humble, peaceful place because of people like Ian."

Bob Burrows

Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.

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