“Come on, David!” “C’mon, c’mon!” “Come on, Dave, yeah!”
With shouts of encouragement and steady applause from his teammates, David Gorczynski crossed the finish line at Orchard Park High School late Tuesday afternoon, long after most of the other runners in one more race that he almost was not allowed to run.
But David Gorczynski is still running, and because of his fight, all young athletes with disabilities in New York will have one less obstacle to overcome in the seasons ahead.
Gorczynski, 20, has autism and loves to run. This summer, his family’s court case against a state education regulation that banned him from competing because of his age attracted wide attention. Hundreds of people – including his Orchard Park teammates and runners from other schools – signed an online petition objecting to the law, and in August, State Supreme Court Justice John L. Michalski issued an injunction that would allow David to run.
“He’s a great addition to the team,” said David Wert, the Orchard Park cross country coach. “To see how much athletics plays into his life is amazing. And the respect – how my boys have stuck up for him – has been great. They are stand-up kids.”
The statute that was going to force Gorczynski off the team actually was written in 2010 to make sure disabled students who were in high school beyond age 18 could still take part in noncontact sports, as long as their participation would not affect the outcome. (In cross country, only the scores of the top finishers are counted. Since Gorczynski always finishes last, his time doesn’t count to anyone but him).
But that regulation included a subsection saying students 19 and older could only get the waiver once.
David already had one waiver last season, when he was 19. He needed another to compete as a 20-year-old. Keeping him on the team was important enough to his family that, with the help of Neighborhood Legal Services, they went to court.
“The important thing about being included in the school is that school is part of the real world,” explained David’s mother, Mary Ellen Gorczynski. “The real world is not a ‘special needs’ place.”
And organized athletic activity helps young people who do have special needs make sense of real-world interactions.
Dr. Michelle Hartley-McAndrew knows all about that. She is medical director of the Children’s Guild Foundation Autism Spectrum Disorder Center at Women & Children’s Hospital and teaches neurology at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
Pointing out that exercise is good for all young people, whether they have a disability or not, she said participation in athletics enhances self-esteem, social skills and happiness.
David is not her patient, but she said athletics would have similar benefits for anyone with autism.
“It’s a good opportunity for them to socialize in a structured way,” she said. “It takes the pressure off. They can feel part of the event without experiencing the anxiety that can come from less-structured social engagements.”
Hartley-McAndrew said young people with autism may have trouble processing the variables in team sports like football or soccer, with players heading in different directions, with a lot of noise and motion. They are more suited to things like swimming or golf. David’s mother called cross country “an individual team sport,” with the added benefit of having no try-outs to pass.
“In sports like these, they don’t have to worry about verbal or nonverbal cues,” Hartley-McAndrew said. “They don’t have to anticipate other people’s movements but still can be part of the team and the shared experience.”
Wert says that, for all his athletes, including Gorczynski, cross country builds character and closeness.
“Everyone runs the same course, whether you’re JV, girls, boys, it’s the same challenge,” he said. “And it’s a very mental sport. Running 3.1 miles, 5K, is something many adults can’t do. Putting one foot in front of the other takes a lot of mind strength. The first mile, you’re maybe running on adrenaline, but the second mile, you realize there are two more miles to go. You have to push yourself through it.”
David doesn’t run alone. Mary Ellen Gorczynski finds places around the course from which to cheer her son on, and he also has a “running buddy,” Terri Swaydis. She was already a runner and working with people with special needs – she has a 21-year-old son who also is disabled – when she started partnering with David three years ago.
Teammates like Drew Filsinger and others will bump fists with David to encourage him before the starting gun, but it is Swaydis’ job to keep him on the course, which can be rambling and looping.
It isn’t known how many other young athletes were affected by the waiver limit and accepted it without protest, but once news of the family’s lawsuit was publicized, help came to make sure it would not keep any others off the field.
While the judge was still considering his ruling, State Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, contacted State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. and members of the Board of Regents to ask that the waiver limit be removed from the regulation.
Robert M. Bennett, Western New York’s Regents representative, supported Kennedy’s request and at its September meeting the board passed an amendment allowing for additional waivers from the age requirement.
The state Education Department supports the change and is expected to make it permanent in December, after the required public comment period.
Tuesday evening, David Gorczynski crossed the finish line about 47 minutes after he started his race. While cheers rang out around him, a look of pride and satisfaction swept across his face.