Sunday, April 19, 2009

Let's Cheer For Andy Bryant Who Has Autism Spectrum Disorder At The Boston Marathon

Jerry Brewer

Autistic runner is one of the guys — only faster

Seattle's Andy Bryant doesn't let autism get to him and will run in his second Boston Marathon on Monday

Seattle Times staff columnist

His coach says he moves as if he's in another world, weaving a little, defying textbook running strategy. If he could learn to maintain a straight line and pace himself, Bryant might be an elite marathoner.

Instead, he must settle for being an inspiration.

It's a consolation only because, with Bryant's unceasing thirst to race, there's rarely time to reflect. Besides, his mind doesn't work that way. He survives on routine, so a distance runner's detailed training schedule matches him perfectly. It fulfills his foremost desire: to be accepted.

"I don't want to have autism," Bryant says often. "I want to be one of the guys."

In a pack of runners, he is. In fact, he's more than accepted. He's admired. And it's not for fighting autism, either.

Two years ago, Bryant finished in the top 6 percent of all participants in the Boston Marathon and did it with a personal-best time of 3 hours, 5 minutes, 36 seconds.

On Monday, he will run in the world-famous event again, with a goal of breaking the three-hour mark.

"I want to get a '2' as the first number this time," the 27-year-old says.

If he paces himself, he might be able to do so. But he doesn't understand pacing. He prefers to dash at the start and will himself the rest of the way. Somehow, he's strong enough to handle it.

Bryant has always been a natural runner. When he was 13, he joined his mother and stepfather, Colleen and Jerry Engle, in a family 5K fun run. They planned to walk the course. When the gun went off, however, Bryant took off sprinting, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. The parents grew nervous. They thought the crowd would make him panic, or he would get scared after he reached the finish line and realized he was alone.

But after they crossed the finish line, they saw Andy holding three sports drinks, four cookies and a hot dog.

"Andy, you OK?" Colleen asked.


"Yeah, there are lots of snacks," he said.

Since then, he's been a distance runner. They knew he was special when he started beating Jerry in races.

"We used to do these 3-mile circuits, and at first, Andy would ask me, 'Can we walk now?' " Jerry said. "And I'd say, 'No, we're almost done.' Now, I ask if we can walk, and he says almost done."

Jerry works as a pilot, so the family moved around a lot before settling in Seattle seven years ago. While living in San Diego in 1999, Andy ran his first marathon with one of his teachers. It took him about 4 ½ hours. Then he competed in half-marathons until 2005, when he ran the Portland Marathon.

After posting a time of 3:18, Bryant started dreaming of the Boston Marathon. He needed to shave eight minutes off his time to qualify, and he came in 10 minutes faster in the 2006 Portland Marathon.

In 2007, on an icy, wet and windy Boston day, he achieved his dream. He stepped in ankle-deep mud at the staging area and endured 50 mph wind gusts throughout the race. The conditions were so bad that officials considered canceling the marathon, but Bryant was undeterred. He accomplished his personal best and placed 1,372nd out of more than 20,000 runners.

Now, after recovering from a broken foot in 2008, he wants to do better.

"I feel great," he says. "I feel happy and confident."

Colleen marvels over her son. He can't read or write functionally. When he broke his foot, he had trouble figuring out how to use crutches. But he can bench-press 170 pounds, and his muscular body almost protects him from his brain's limitations.

"He has an IQ of 75 maybe," Colleen says. "Maybe. But what he does with the deck of cards he's been dealt is amazing, really. Amazing. He just figures out a way. His life revolves around running."

Every month, Bryant puts his training regimen on the refrigerator and follows it to the letter. He can't read most sentences, but he can comprehend that schedule.

Once a week, he cleans a QFC grocery store to earn some money. He loves puzzles and model airplanes and painting. Colleen and Jerry proudly display his artwork throughout their home.

He's made great progress from his childhood, when he would throw temper tantrums and bite his hand because he didn't know how to communicate.

"It's just a different path," Colleen says. "When we have a newborn, as parents, it's like we have this blueprint in mind. With an autistic child, what happens as time marches on, that plan unravels more and more. You give up some things, but you redirect and you reset your goals. Running has given him a new life plan."

On Friday, that plan included a celebration. Bryant went to Ingraham High School after he moved to Seattle (special education students are allowed to continue high school after they turn 18). So Ingraham treated Bryant to a send-off.

As Bryant entered the auditorium, the student body stood and clapped, the drum line delivered thunderous beats, and the cheerleaders waved their pompoms. Mayor Greg Nickels declared it Andy Bryant Day. Chants of "An-dee! An-dee! An-dee!" filled the room as Bryant took the microphone following a few presentations.

"Thank you everybody!" he yelled.

The students broke into a "Let's go, Andy!" cheer.

"I think he puts the message out there to everyone that regardless of any disability, you can do anything," said Mary Ellen Eagle, Bryant's Special Olympics coach.

"You can walk downstairs. You can work. You can run in the Boston Marathon. So parents should not give up. Anything can happen if they believe in their sons and daughters."

Soon after Eagle spoke, a student walked over and asked Bryant to sign his cast.

Acceptance? No, adoration.

Just one of the guys? No, he's so much better.

He's so much faster.