Most runners who finish last in a race aren't showered with accolades or become You Tube sensations, but that's what happened to eleven-year-old Matt Woodrum of Worthington, Ohio when, to the resounding cheers of his classmates, he finished a distant last in the 400 meter race at his elementary school's annual track and field day.
The reason was that Matt wasn't just any athlete: he finished the race despite suffering from spastic cerebral palsy, which produces one or more tight muscle groups limiting movement, creates stiffness, and makes it difficult to move from one position to another.
The school told him that he did not have to participate at all, but he chose to enter the race and to persevere until he crossed the finish line, no matter how long it took.
Matt had been encouraged to run by the school's gym teacher John Blaine, who ran alongside him during the second half of the race. Soon, other fifth- and sixth-graders - including runners who had lapped him on the track -- spontaneously joined in with chants of "Let's go, Matt, Let's go!"
The second half of the race was a struggle, but Matt was able to complete two laps on the 200-meter track and won applause and high-fives from his classmates after he crossed the finish line.
"He's been a fighter since day one," Matt's mother told the Associated Press afterwards, "and I didn't expect anything less." "The kids will tell you that Matt never gives up on anything he sets out to do," confirmed Blaine. "They knew he would cross that finish line, and they wanted to be a part of that."
Lessons taught and learned
The evidence shows that the nation's elementary and secondary schools are experiencing an epidemic of bullying which targets thousands of children who are perceived to be "different." Research shows that children with special physical health conditions such as speech or language impairment, vision problems, cancer, diabetes, muscular dystrophy, or cerebral palsy are most at risk of being the victims of bullying.
Fortunately, Matt's school, Colonial Hills Elementary, is different. Matt's mother reports that students "treat him like every other kid. They're very great with him and they're like a second family to him." It appears that the school's teachers, administrators and parents go out of their way to teach values about camaraderie, empathy and mutual respect. The students' cheering for Matt shows that they respond.
Track and field days are meant to be year-end fun after months in the classroom, but the lessons that day were taught and learned on the track outside the school; universal lessons, not confined to the school, or even to the United States. Indeed, according to ABC News, by early June a home video of Matt's 400-meter race had received more than 808,000 hits on the Internet worldwide.
Many parents, coaches and players likely take participation in sports for granted, without ever imagining what it takes for young athletes to overcome physical challenges before they can even begin participating. The race video is Matt's lasting contribution to the sports world because no one who watches him surmount barriers could take participation in athletics for granted again.
Fifth-grader Matt Woodrum's resolve teaches athletes of all ages important lessons about determination, perseverance and fortitude.
Sometimes the best teachers are those who simply set the right example. Usually, though, the teachers are older than 11.
Sources: Barbara Rodriguez, Associated Press, "Ohio Runner With Cerebral Palsy Becomes Online Hit," Houston Chronicle, June 2, 2012; "One Brave Kid Is a Real Inspiration," Daily Telegraph (Australia), June 4, 2012, p. 19; Douglas E. Abrams, A Coordinated Public Response to School Bullying, in Our Promise: Achieving Educational Equality for America's Children (Maurice R. Dyson & Daniel B. Weddle eds., 2009) at p. 401.
Posted September 1, 2012