The IHSA Cross Country State Final program is littered with the names of individuals who have made history three miles at a time, from Craig Virgin’s famous gallop in 1972 to Madeline Perez’s all-class record just a year ago. Over the past 20 days, Maroa-Forsyth High School freshman Josh Nichol and Andrew High School senior Andrew Diaz have produced two of the great performances in IHSA Boys Cross Country State Series history. Despite that fact, don’t look for either name to be listed among the meet qualifiers in the state final program this weekend.
JOSH NICHOL, MAROA-FORSYTH
In just her third season as the head cross country coach at Maroa-Forsyth, Erin Atherton found herself in a new situation when she first met Josh Nichol at an August meeting for students interested in joining the team. Josh is legally blind, a result of a condition called Retinopathy of Prematurity that occurs when the retinas fail to fully develop as a result of a premature birth.
Josh was already an accomplished runner, having competed in triathlons and track & field at the junior high level. However, cross country offered some new challenges as it related to his sight, as running in parks and on trails lends itself to constant terrain changes, winding courses and the occasional obstacle to navigate like a park bench or stream.
“It was a pretty easy adjustment,” said Atherton. “The team was great about it. When we are out on our long runs, they are good about making sure someone stays with Josh and lets him know when there is new territory or changes in direction.”
Meets however, presented a new problem, as NFHS/IHSA rules required an adult, not a teammate, to serve as Josh’s course guide. Enter Marora-Forsyth special education teacher Chris Seider, an active runner who coaches three sports at the school (basketball, softball, track) and ran cross country at Stephen Decatur High School in Decatur.
“I received an email from Erin in August asking if I would be Josh’s guide,” recalled Seider. “I wasn’t sure what it meant, if it was allowed or if I would even be good at it. I knew Josh from class and after talking with him, I decided to give it a try.”
Seider was Josh’s shadow during meets this season, running behind him and to the left (Josh has some vision in his right eye & rules don’t allow him to run in front or next to him to prevent pacing) as he calls out changes in direction and terrain.
“I was really nervous for the first meet,” said Seider. “The big thing was that I didn’t want to hold him back or make a mistake that would hurt him. I didn’t know what I was doing, I was probably talking too much.”
Josh begs to differ.
“He (Chris) is awesome to work with,” said Josh. “He told me he was nervous (for the first meet), but to me, he didn’t act nervous on the course. He tells me if we have a sharp left turn in 200 feet or lets me know if runners are to my left or right. We tweak things depending on how each race goes.”
But that’s not to say he is perfect, as both Josh and Chris laughed when recalling a moment in a meet this season when Seider called out the wrong direction.
“It was our second lap on the course,” said Seider. “We were in a long stretch of going left and I kept repeating ‘left’, ‘left’, ‘left’ and then the course turns right and I said ‘left’ again.
And where did Josh go?
"I still turned right," says a clearly amused Josh.
“He has an amazing feel for where he is on the course,” said Seider. “Not all that different from when he runs track and has to stay in his lane. He is an amazing kid. He really inspires me.”
Josh has improved steadily throughout the season, as he ran a 24:12 in the first meet of the year and dropped to a 21:23 by the conference championship race in October.
Atherton expects Josh to be a scoring runner for the program in the years ahead and he already has set lofty goals for next season, as he hopes to shave another three minutes off his time to be in the 18-minute range.
How Josh fares in reaching his goal won’t be known for another year, but who will be behind him as he strives for it is already set for 2013.
“I asked Chris if he would serve as my guide again next year,” said Josh. “And he wanted to. I like having him as my guide.”
The feeling is mutual.
“I think this experience has done more good for me than it has for him,” said Seider. “He shows up with a smile and gives it all every race. I just hope I can keep up with him.”
NICK DIAZ, ANDREW HIGH SCHOOL
Nick Diaz’s story begins before his sophomore year, when his mother Joan emailed Andrew High School Boys Cross Country coach Bobby Matz.
“She told me that he was autistic, but that he was very athletic and loved to run,” said Matz. “It is my job to oversee the safety of the 50 kids on the team, and to train our athletes to help them improve. I was a little hesitant at first, because I didn’t want a situation where Nick joining the team might take away from my ability to do those things. We agreed to meet and have Nick start with us on a trial basis. We knew within the first few days it was going to be a good thing.”
Assigned to a teammate at practices to make sure he stayed with the pack as the Thunderbolts ran the forest preserves near their campus, the next challenge became determining Nick’s skill level.
“To be honest, we probably sold him short at first,” said Matz. “We teamed him with a kid who he could have outrun, but he just stayed with him because that was what we told him to do.”
It turned out that Nick could outrun several of his teammates.
He ran the three-mile meet courses in the low 20-minute range as a sophomore, dropped down to recording sub 19-minute times as a junior and was in the 17-minute range in nearly every race this season. Those marks made him a scoring runner for the Thunderbolts all throughout the year, as he finished seventh or better on the squad in every race.
Nick’s finest effort may have come in the Regional race Andrew hosted on October 26. Running the same course one week earlier in a regular-season meet, Nick had recorded a time of 17:20, but in the Regional he finished with a blazing 16:35 to place third on the team, helping the squad qualify for Sectionals. His coaches and teammates believe the surge was not a result of coaching, weather or any other in-race adjustments, but instead, simply having more fans cheering.
“Nick runs faster when people are cheering for him,” said teammate Devyn Haseltine. “He says ‘thank you’ to the fans as he runs by them, but at the same time, he is really intense and serious when he is running.”
“And he always runs with a smile on his face,” adds teammate Dan Vallejo.
Nick’s autism generally limits his conversations to no more than one- or two-word responses, but amidst high-fives and fist bumps, his coaches and teammates recognize the social growth that has occurred in him as a result of being part of the team.
“He has really opened up,” added Vallejo. “We made it a point to welcome him and include him in everything we do, like anyone else on the team. He has become more comfortable and more social. He loves talking about running or his dog or his family. Our team wouldn’t be the same without him.”
Nick’s high school career ended at the Edwardsville Sectional on November 2, but his impact on the program will be felt for years to come.
“Nick has epitomized what we want the kids in our program to be like,” said Matz. “He never complains and he leaves everything he has on the course every day. I think his attitude has inspired the rest of the team, and his teammates really gravitate to him and look out for him. What he has accomplished is one of the most amazing things I have seen in my 17 years of coaching.”
Ultimately, the coaches at both Maroa-Forsyth and Andrew look at the experiences of this season and see bigger picture lessons about inclusion and compassion.
“I hope the biggest impact that Nick has on his teammates is how they act toward other people in the future,” said Matz. “Whether it is dealing with someone with autism or a disability or any type of handicap. I think they will have a new level of caring and understanding.”
As for Atherton, she sums up Josh (with a sentiment that also fits for Nick) when she simply says,
“Josh is one of the team.”
Nick Diaz on the far right with his Andrew teammates this season: