Cross Country: Blindness only difference between S-M runner, teammates
STAPLES -- In almost every way, Alex Brings is like any other seventh-grader. He likes to fool around with his friends, has a mischievous smile and a quick wit.
STAPLES - In almost every way, Alex Brings is like any other seventh-grader. He likes to fool around with his friends, has a mischievous smile and a quick wit.
He enjoys running, soccer and basketball and plays the trumpet and violin.
This fall he decided he wanted to run on the junior high cross country team for the Staples-Motley Cardinals.
The only difference between him and the rest of his teammates is that he is completely blind.
Close your eyes, keep them closed, and imagine running a 3200-meter course (about two miles) like junior high runners traverse.
"In school last year, some of the guys ran cross country in sixth grade and they said I should try it," said Brings. "I talked to my mom and she said if I wanted to, I should try it and I finally said OK."
That decision would be a challenge for him and for Cardinals head coach Bruce Fuhrman.
"I wanted to make sure we had somebody we could tether to him," said Fuhrman. "I had seen it once before when Sauk Rapids had a blind runner about a decade ago. At first, we thought about getting some outside help from CLC, but then thought let's just get our coaches to run with him because we had an extra coach this year and we also had a couple of practice buddies who ran with him in practice."
Fuhrman said assistant coaches Kristie Johnson and Steve Fligge would run with Brings individually in practice by holding hands or holding onto a shoulder or jersey. Sometimes, some of the older varsity runners would run with Brings in practice and Fligge would run with him in the meet races.
"There were also times in practice we would let him run free (untethered) when there weren't any obstacles just to let him do that and he liked that too," said Fuhrman.
"In my first race, the coach talked to me as we ran," said Brings. "In the next race we decided we wouldn't talk, but he would give my hand like three squeezes to go really fast and we took it from there. If there was a hill or a tree or another runner coming up, he would tell me."
Brings concedes he was a little fearful and nervous at first and not sure how the course was set up. Now he runs with the confidence of any other runner.
He had two goals for his first race: To finish and to finish it without walking. He accomplished both goals.
Brings finished dead last in his first race with a time of almost 24 minutes. His time in the final race of the season was 19:02, an improvement of almost five minutes from the start of the season to the end.
"His last two races, he was breaking 20 (minutes) comfortably and was definitely not last," said Fuhrman. "He was very proud of that and I was too. He was very competitive."
Despite his handicap, Brings has always been competitive in everything he does according to his mother Heidi.
"Just ask his sisters," she said.
Brings admits to having taken some tumbles in practice, but never in a race. By the end of the season, he was pulling his coach who was having a hard time keeping up with him.
"At times at the beginning of the year, it would be me pulling him along," said Fligge, "but the last couple of races he really picked it up and I did struggle to keep up with him. His training improved greatly from the beginning of the season to the end."
"He's really picked up his speed and gotten comfortable," Fuhrman added. "Next year, we're going to have to find somebody different that can keep up with him."
Like any other first-year runner, Brings has learned to run through being tired or when his legs started to hurt. He enjoys passing another runner and hates it when he gets passed.
Fuhrman said Brings has fit in well with the rest of the team.
"He's just like everyone else on the team, a little mischievous, and likes to have fun while working hard," he said.
Cardinals varsity co-captains Ryan Trout and Nick Tabatt especially reached out to Brings running with him at times in practice. Trout is a senior and Tabatt is a sophomore who started running in sixth grade despite having his own handicap - cerebral palsy.
For his part, Brings said he was disappointed to see the season end but was proud of everything he accomplished. He pointed in particular to his time of 2:17 in 400-meter sprints on the practice course.
And, he said with a huge smile, he definitely plans to run again next year.