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Monday, December 11, 2023

‘Golden’ special needs runner inspires others

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Talking to a gymnasium filled with teenagers would be daunting to most people, yet Andrew Peterson can walk up to the podium and speak with passion and conviction like a pro.

But Peterson isn’t like most people—he’s one of a kind.

On a Friday afternoon, the students at Bloomington High School North, located in Bloomington, Ind. located about an hour south of Indianapolis, filed into their maroon and gold gym and listened as Peterson delivered his unique, inspiring message of how athletics helped him succeed.

Peterson visited the Monroe County high school as a spokesperson for Champions Together, a fairly new partnership between the Indiana High School Athletic Association and Special Olympics Indiana. The program promotes servant leadership among Indiana’s student athletes while changing their lives as well as the lives of those with intellectual disabilities. It also serves to create a culture of awareness, inclusion and anti-bullying in schools through unified sports.

Peterson shared his moving story of how he went from a baby born with brain damage and a diagnosis of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) to becoming a three-time gold medalist in the Special Olympics.

“Nothing in life has ever been easy,” Peterson said. “In elementary school, most kids couldn’t understand me when I spoke, some laughed and called me names, others walked by me like I didn’t exist. After a decade of physical therapy, I could finally move my arms and legs together in a smooth motion. I wasn’t the fastest kid on the playground, but you know what? No one could run as far as me.”

The effects of FAS can include growth deficiencies, central nervous system problems, and issues with learning, memory, attention, speech, and motor skills.

Peterson attended Pike Township Schools and in that system, joined the cross country team. Running boosted his self-confidence. Despite his improvement, he said, many remained focused on his disability. “I showed them,” he said.

As a student at Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School, Peterson earned four varsity letters in cross country. At age 13, he joined Special Olympics Indiana and was given the chance to run the 400, 800, and 1500-meter races. Over the past nine years he’s won more than 25 gold medals in state competitions.

In 2014, he was selected to represent Indiana at the Special Olympics USA Games in Princeton, N.J. He ran two personal best times and earned gold medals in the 1,500, 3,000, and 5,000-meter races.

Peterson’s other accomplishments include being a member of the Special Olympics Athlete Leadership Program; helping coach a Special Olympics track team; a spokesperson for individuals living with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome; being featured twice in campaigns for the Finish Line Youth Foundation; and a cover contest finalist for Runner’s World.

Motivational speaker is also on that list of achievements.

“Special Olympics means more than winning, it gives athletes the chance to improve our fitness, compete with others who have equal abilities, feel good about ourselves, gain an extended family and show everyone that each person with an intellectual disability is not a nobody, but a somebody. You are now called to make a difference one person at a time,” Peterson told the students at Bloomington High School North.

The students, who were racially diverse, responded with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

That day, which was Peterson’s 22nd birthday, Michael Furnish, president and CEO of Special Olympics Indiana awarded the runner with the Athlete of the Year Award.

“All his accomplishments are very impressive for a young man whose IQ falls into the bottom one percent of the population,” said Craig Peterson, Andrew’s adopted father. Craig, who is white, is also the father of Andrew’s biological siblings Michael, Ashley and Brandon, all of whom have FAS and have varying degrees of special needs.

Though Peterson’s celebrity is growing, he said he still loves to run and says he practices six days a week. He’s currently preparing for an Area Special Olympics meet at Ben Davis High School on May 16, where he will attempt to break the 3,000-meter record.

Lee Lonzo, director of Champions Together, said he was glad Peterson took the time to talk with students about the program and hopes others see him as a source of inspiration.

“(Running) is how Andrew found his voice and now he gets to be a shining model for students throughout the state and shows them ‘I have all these obstacles and I’ve overcome them. Why can’t you?’ He is a role model and he continues to show kids it’s not about what makes us different, but what we have in common,” reflected Lonzo.

For more information about Special Olympics, visit specialolympics.org.

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