Kate Bergamasco's nickname for her son Dave is Forrest Gump. Much like the iconic, fictional movie character, Dave Bergamasco hasn't stopped running since discovering he's pretty good at it.
The Williamsville South senior has qualified for the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association championship meets in cross country and indoor track. He has set school records.
Unlike Forrest Gump, there's nothing make believe about Bergamasco or his inspirational tale.
The Billies' standout via North Carolina is one of the top distance runners in Western New York. He has put in countless hours of work to earn a Division I cross country/track scholarship to attend Charleston Southern University in South Carolina even though he still battles/manages the painful medical condition he's had since age 6, Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease.
The ailment, which is rare and contracted by male children between the ages of 6 and 8, affects the hip where the thighbone and pelvis meet in a ball and socket joint. The head of the femur disintegrates because of loss of blood, which makes it difficult to walk. It also can cause arthritis. It often leads to corrective hip-replacement surgery.
The latter seemed to be in Dave's future so that he could at least walk in comfort, not run toward the life of a Division I athlete. A sudden change in his physical condition – one of his legs, which had been 1.5 inches shorter than the other due to time spent in a full-leg cast, lengthened prior to a scheduled hip procedure. That prompted his physicians to postpone surgery and take a wait-and-see approach.
"We knew he'd be able to walk but didn’t know if he'd be able to run or play sports," said Kate Bergamasco, noting that doctors talked about doing hip replacements after each of Dave's growth spurts. "I would definitely call it a miracle."
Wait-and-see eventually turned into Dave receiving clearance to run and jump and then participate in sports prior to entering seventh grade. Doctors have since limited him to non-contact sports (running and golf) because they fear his hip has an easier chance at breaking than someone who doesn't deal with LCP .
"I've always wanted to play sports," said Dave, who hopes to cap his season by qualifying for the NYSPHSAA outdoor track and field championships in three weeks. "I didn't like being the kid sitting out during gym because I was in a wheelchair. … As soon as I was told I could run and jump I was running and jumping everywhere."
Running and jumping didn't always seem to be in the cards while growing up in North Carolina. As a youngster, Dave started to have issues walking. He also experienced discomfort in his hip. Since LCP is extremely rare, three doctors initially failed to determine it as the cause of his discomfort. They figured he was experiencing growing pains until one physician decided to call for an X-ray of the area. The photos revealed the problem. Dave's right femur looked like a sponge.
Treatment included a full-length cast on his right leg. Of course, Dave's spirit had none of that as he kept trying to walk and wound up breaking his casts twice before being placed in a bent one that confined him to a wheelchair for nearly two years. Yes it was extremely painful when doctors pulled the cast off in third grade.
Dave said he couldn't run or jump until fourth or fifth grade. He received the green light to give athletics a try just before entering seventh grade.
"I always wanted to play soccer," he said. "So I tried out for the soccer team. Didn't make the soccer team. Just lack of athletic ability and stuff because going so many years doing nothing. But the one thing the coach said I was good at was running. That was kind of the shocker. So my coach told me to try out for the track team."
So that's what he did at East Carteret High in North Carolina, which is located near the South Carolina border and only a few hours from the college he has chosen to attend.
He said he wasn't very good his first year but kept at it because it's the only competitive sport that gave him a chance to feel like an athlete. By the time of his freshman and sophomore years, Dave started winning some meets. He qualified for states as a sophomore.
After that season, Kate Bergamasco's career as a visual therapist brought them to WNY. Dave's father Michael is retired but accustomed to moving with his military career.
Dave thought he'd be able to pick up in his new surroundings where he left off in Carolina. He quickly learned he had to do more in order to be able to compete against this state's higher caliber of athletes.
"I learned a lot, especially with my condition," he said. "I had to do many hours of physical therapy and everything just to be able to compete at the same level. … A lot more stretching. Practices, I have to stretch twice as long as other people. When I get home I have to stretch again and stuff due to all my muscles being extremely tight. I'm not a very flexible person at all. They're tight just from many years of not properly using my leg muscles."
He just missed on qualifying for states in indoor and outdoor track as a junior. That just made the lad who hates to lose more determined to put in the work to achieve his goals this year.
Dave set school records in the 1,000 (2:35.10) and 1,600 (4:33.69) during the indoor season. During the fall at the McQuaid Invitational, he posted the fastest time by a Will South cross-country runner (15:36). He is close to breaking the school record of 1:58.44 in the 800.
He has a few more chances at chasing that mark – including this weekend at the Carl J. Rosech Classic at Clarence, next week during the ECIC Championship meet at Williamsville South and then the weekend after that at the Section VI Championships at Niagara Falls High School.
"A wheelchair-bound kid, not able to do any sports until seventh grade, and then picks a sport that can be very painful for him," South coach Dan Syracuse said. "He has a very strong drive to do well, and sometimes he is willing to go through a lot of pain for his success. Win or lose, all I want out of any of my athletes is their best effort. I know with David, when he races, I am going to get it, and if he is feeling good that day, watch out."
Dave credits Syracuse and his parents for pushing him to improve to the point where he's going to run Division I. Though Dave showered others with praise for helping him succeed, Syracuse knows his guidance can only help an athlete go so far.
"I am not successful at all unless the athlete wants to put in the work," Syracuse said. "David is someone that will literally go the extra mile. His hard work is the reason he will be competing at the next level."
"Going from wheelchair-bound and not being able to do anything," Dave said, " to being able to compete at the Division I level next year is a pretty big step."
Dave and his family also credit faith for Dave's success.
Before doctors decided hip replacement surgery wasn't necessary, Dave attended a couple of healing services in hopes of getting his condition under control.
"If it wasn't for my healing service, I'm not sure I'd be able to compete at this level," he said. "The doctors couldn't explain it. I was supposed to go in for a hip replacement and then they said I didn't need it. No other explanation other than healing service."