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Athlete with cerebral palsy and Nike deal offers inspiration

Each day, our five-year-old son (with some reminders from his kindergarten teacher) switches his hard plastic insole additions from his outdoor shoes to his indoors one and back again. It’s the only clear visible cue that he has cerebral palsy.

His form of the disease is extremely mild, making the impacts on his mobility very limited. His gait isn’t noticeably different from his classmates, nor are his cognitive abilities. The physical differences were slightly more noticeable as a toddler, but he’s learned to run and jump and even stand on one leg like many other children his age. He’s mastered each of these motor skills through practice – though on his terms, not so much ours. We try to encourage the exercises provided by his physiotherapist, but it’s much more his participation in activities and his desire to do what his friends and siblings are doing that push him to improve.

I believe one of the greatest motivators for him has been running. Two years ago, I shared in this column his joy at being told about Shayne Dobson and his place on Canada’s Paralympic Team heading to the Rio games. Dobson is a Moncton-based runner who took up the sport in university; he also has cerebral palsy and competes in both para- and non-para athletic events.

Listening to Dobson talk about his journey to para-sport gave me a completely new appreciation of what opportunities might lie ahead for our little boy who sometimes asks why his brain has to work differently than his brother’s or sister’s. Now, I can’t wait to tell him about another runner whose journey we can follow.

This week, on the heels of World Cerebral Palsy Day, Nike announced an ambassadorship deal with Justin Gallegos, a University of Oregon runner with cerebral palsy. Gallegos worked with Nike while he was training to compete in his first half-marathon (which he did, with a time of 2:03:49). The partnership came in part because of the attention Gallegos drew at his first university cross-country meet, during which his shoe came off 50m into an 8km race. Gallegos picked up his shoe and just kept running, coming in last in the standings but first in the stands. He’s been working with Nike on a running shoe designed for those with disabilities; a shoe with a zippered heel, an innovative set of laces, and other features designed with non-traditional running gaits in mind. (I have a feeling a pair of these FlyEase shoes will be on our shopping list soon!)

Gallegos is the first athlete with cerebral palsy to sign with Nike, but he’s not the first para-athlete courted by an athletics brand. Australian Paralympian Rae Anderson also has cerebral palsy; she signed an endorsement deal with Australian underwear company Modibodi in advance of the Rio Games in 2016 – those same games Moncton’s Shayne Dobson attended, inspiring our family and showing us that living with cerebral palsy can include a passion for athletics and a fierce determination to succeed at whatever endeavour one chooses. In reading about Anderson, I was moved by one of her comments on the partnership.

“People shouldn’t have to fit in society or be part of some idea or concept that society has created,” she says in the Sydney Morning Herald. “Just be yourself and do what you want to do. There is disability everywhere within society but it’s just how we approach it. There are stereotypes and a lot of it has got to do with the background of our society. We’re a modest society.”

An athletic endorsement deal might not be in our son’s future, but the dream of it can be, thanks to a changing society.

A version of this post appeared originally in the Times & Transcript. Click here for more of Jenna Morton’s column, She Said.


He Could Race in Rio: The Power of Role Model Shayne Dobson

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