>Look What I Can Do!>Look what Nathan Baker can do!
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Columns by Edward G. Robinson III Home / Sports / High School Sports / Columns by Edward G. Robinson III
Robinson: Published: Oct 19, 2006 12:30 AM
Modified: Oct 19, 2006 07:14 AM
Edward G. Robinson III, Staff Writer
Green Hope High freshman Nathan Baker was born prematurely and at 9 months was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. When his parents, Lil and Tracy Baker, asked doctors if he would walk, they replied, "We don't know." Nathan knew. As a baby he fought to lift his neck and body. At 18 months, he moved about in a posture-controlled walker -- cautious of his limitations but bold enough to test them.
"If he knew he was secure," his mother said, "he'd take off."
At 2 1/2, Nathan became an independent walker, although he often needed a steady hand to stabilize him.
Nevertheless, the spirited kid with the infectious smile moved where conventional wisdom said he shouldn't. He wore braces over his shins but those never seemed to stop progress.
There was a trip to the North Carolina Zoo with his fifth-grade class where he zipped around to see the animals with all the others.
Mom had thought about bringing the wheelchair that day, but decided against it. She did not know if he would be all right but decided to give it a try.
Which brings us to Wednesday when Nathan, older but determined nonetheless, completed his final high school cross country race of the season at Bond Park.
With assorted well-wishers cheering him on, he navigated the wooded course during the Tri-Eight conference championships and finished the junior varsity 3K in 16 minutes, 49 seconds, almost seven minutes off the leader's pace.
Yet Nathan's story is not about winning races. It's about competing, making up your mind to try something and giving it your all, despite your limitations.
"I'm not a quitter," said Nathan, who has a normal intellect but is hearing-impaired and is sometimes hard to understand.
And that's what I like about Nathan. He's an underdog but no quitter. He tried a sport that few -- don't count his mother as one -- believed he would excel in.
Why would they? You have to run 3.1 miles to finish a varsity cross country race. For many persons with cerebral palsy, that task is believed to be physically unthinkable.
Cerebral palsy, as defined by the United Cerebral Palsy association (www.ucp.org), is a broad term describing a group of "chronic conditions affecting body movement and muscle coordination," caused by "damage to one or more specific areas of the brain."
Many with CP experience muscle tightness or involuntary movement, among other complications. It is estimated that 764,000 children and adults manifest one or more symptoms of the condition.
Nearly 8,000 babies are diagnosed with the disorder each year, according to the UPC Web site. Dr. Debbie Thorpe, a physical therapist and pediatric specialist at the University of North Carolina, has spent 20 years treating the condition. She met Nathan while conducting a CP study this year and was bowled over by his determination to be athletic.
For 10 weeks, three times per week, he ran on a treadmill, increasing his heart rate to levels the doctor could not believe. When they were done, she suggested he try out for the cross country team. Simply practice with them.
She didn't know what to expect, but certainly not to see Nathan sporting a maroon uniform and jumping across the finish line with a flourish, playing to the appreciative crowd.
"As therapists, we never thought that children with cerebral palsy could work at such high intensity," Thorpe said. "Kids with disabilities need fitness, need activity just as much as their peers. Traditionally these kids were protected."
Ask Nathan why he runs and he smiles. "Mostly to exercise," he signed to his mother, who interpreted. "Not to win. To help me keep in shape. And I like to make friends."
Probe a little deeper and he reveals another reason. "It's important to let people know that people with disabilities can do anything," he said. "We can exercise. Like Lance Armstrong, 'Live Strong.' "
It wasn't hard to convince Green Hope coach Mike Miragliuolo. If Nathan came to practice, he could participate. The coach made the right choice, one Dr. Thorpe said is not often made. While it's hard to overlook Nathan's skinny legs and small physique, you must shelve talk about his condition and concentrate on his athletic aspirations.
Ultimately, that will define him as he continues cross country. This year, he was just one of 154 Green Hope runners in search of a letterman jacket. A runner in search of a faster time.
Twice this season, he fell in the woods, tripped or unintentionally pushed, but he got up. That's part of it, just like losing a toe nail and blisters. More important, his times improved, despite the abnormal stiffness in his muscles.
On Aug. 14, he finished his first 5K race in 33:55. He ran his fastest on Oct. 11 in 29:07.
No doubt, he's impressed teammates.
"If he can do it, I can do it," Green Hope senior Kirby Peterson said. "Then it's the other way around. If I can do it, he can do it."
As you get to know Nathan, appreciate his zest for life, it's easy to believe that he never had any doubts about walking. How else would he escape his little sister, Cassie, when she becomes "annoying?"
Nathan just knew.
Staff writer Edward G. Robinson III can be reached at 829-4781 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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She was not strong. She was valiant. Radiant. Brave and broken. The beauty she discovered in the aftermath was unparalleled to anything she had known before, because it had come at such a cost.