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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: A coach sees community message in teen's 19-mile bike ride

Like many of us, Michael Gernatt was moved and impressed by the tale of Cristino Almonte, an 18-year-old high school senior from Buffalo who repeatedly rode his bicycle 19 miles through  November rain and darkness to try out for an Exceptional Seniors all-star soccer tournament in Elma.

“It’s just amazing,” said Gernatt, a Gowanda High School graduate who is now head coach of the Rome Free Academy lacrosse team, in Central New York. “What he did, the idea that by really dedicating yourself and working hard you can build an opportunity through that kind of sacrifice, that’s just not something you see every day.”

Gernatt and I connected via Twitter after he read my column about Almonte's effort. He was one of several coaches and educators who reached out with similar thoughts:

To Gernatt – who played on sectional champions at Gowanda, took part in club lacrosse at the University at Buffalo and has coached at the high school and college level – it seems as if Almonte's experience should reinforce one overwhelming conclusion for all of us.

The goal should be coming together to make sure no one needs to make such a ride again.

The story went like this: Almonte, a student at the Math Science Technology Preparatory High School at Seneca, was nominated by his high school coach for the Exceptional Seniors Game, an all-star competition designed to give college coaches a closer look at fine local players.

Almonte, introduced to soccer by friends in the refugee community on Buffalo’s West Side, is a goalkeeper who dreams of playing collegiate soccer. He is also the youngest son of a single mom who works full-time. Almonte did not have the money to take an Uber or a cab to the tryouts in Elma, which extended for several days.

The sports complex is in what Helen Tederous, spokeswoman for the NFTA, described as a remote destination, and she said the nearest bus stop is about a mile and a half away. The adults in Cristino's life had obligations on those nights with their jobs or families, and he is the kind of kid who did not want to ask someone to bend a schedule, so he decided to ride his bicycle.

That was no casual decision. It is a 19-mile trip to the sports park, both from Almonte's high school and from his Black Rock home. He made several versions of that journey on his bike during the competition, sometimes in sleet and darkness. Occasionally he went partway by bus. On the final day, another soccer family that had learned of his situation gave him a ride to Elma, and then home.

Coaches and organizers involved in selecting the final teams said there is no doubt that sheer awe about Almonte's effort helped put him on a roster for Sunday’s final game. According to Lisa Fonseca, Almonte's mother, at least one local college has reached out to her son since an account of his journey appeared in the newspaper.

Gernatt is not surprised. Any university, he said, would love to have someone with that kind of heart and commitment as a student.

Yet he said the necessity of the ride itself ought to cause a lot of thinking by educators involved with all levels and all varieties of youth sports.

“This would not have been so heartwarming if he got hurt riding in the dark,” said Gernatt, thinking of how the teen bicycled at night along busy roads, traveled by cars and trucks. “The real question ought to be, how do we get to a point where a kid doesn’t have to ride a bike through the darkness to take part in these events?”

Coach Mike Gernatt with a youth lacrosse team he helped coach in greater Syracuse. (Submitted photo)

He emphasizes that he is not familiar with the Exceptional Seniors game, and his point is larger than any one event. The reality of American youth sports, he said, is that a gulf in opportunities exists between young athletes from families with deep financial resources and children raised in more difficult circumstances.

One of the most dramatic aspects of that ravine can involve accessibility. It would make sense, Gernatt said, if planning for any opportunity, in any sport, that is intended to showcase talent from across the region should begin with the assumption that some youths might be unable to find transportation – especially if the venue is far from the city and is not served routinely by bus lines.

That bus service, to Gernatt, is the logical ideal for any all-encompassing event involving teens from throughout the region.

Tim Kronenwetter, organizer of the Exceptional Seniors game, said the event does not have a formal process for targeting teenagers in need of transportation. Yet coaches are aware of those realities, Kronenwetter said, and there is typically conversation about youths who have no easy way to get a ride, which he said usually leads to someone making sure the player gets a lift.

Looking ahead, conscious of what Almonte underlines, Kronenwetter said he is open to discussion about establishing new ways of guaranteeing all young athletes definitely find a ride.

Gernatt, for his part, has some ideas that might carry across all events, in all youth sports, that do not already take similar steps.

Maybe, he said, you include a section of any athlete's paperwork that makes note of youths in need of help with travel.

Maybe you build an active volunteer base of parents with access to vehicles, parents willing to provide rides for athletes who need them.

Maybe you have an apparatus in place so that as soon as word starts to spread about a teen needing extreme measures to take part, someone is lined up to step in and help.

Gernatt knows there are already many adults who quietly and selflessly take those steps in youth sports and beyond, and he describes himself as a living example of the benefits. When he was 3, his father died in a logging accident, and his mother worked two jobs to pay the bills.

Looking back on his childhood, Gernatt remembers how a friend’s grandfather, Tyrone Leroy, used to fill a van with youths from the Seneca Nation and the area around it. He would drive those boys to tournaments in Canada, where they competed as the Newtown Golden Eagles.

That assistance helped to shape his life, Gernatt said, creating a foundation for building a career around his passion. He said his wife, Nina, read the column about Almonte and immediately started thinking about adults who intervened on her behalf when she was young – while also wondering if those kind of connections, today, might be nurtured and expanded.

Those bonds, Gernatt said, could extend beyond athletics. In cases where this does not happen already, it might involve providing a hand with travel to academic competitions or dance lessons or theater rehearsals or any event where day-to-day obstacles potentially prevent teens or children from showing up.

“These are the kind of relationships,” Gernatt said, “that can make all the difference for a kid who might go either way in life.”

To Gernatt, there could be no better moment for the conversation. Like everyone else, he is impressed by the idea of a high school kid willing to ride 19 miles on a bicycle, repeatedly, to meet a goal. Gernatt sees a renewed focus on lifting the dreams of such a teen as the greatest way, as a community, of honoring Almonte's ride.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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