A spontaneous standing ovation erupted from the crowd of thousands as Elijah’s name was called. Elijah couldn’t contain his excitement, so he sprinted up the aisle to the stage. His grin stretched into a huge smile as he was given a medal and awarded a state champion jersey. Tears in the crowd flowed as they continued to applaud. Elijah, a quiet autistic boy, high-fived every person along the aisle as he returned to his seat.
It all started the year before. Elijah was a sophomore at Corner Canyon High School in Draper, Utah. He and his special needs classmates spent much of their day isolated from the rest of the school. We wanted Elijah to have more of a connection with the other students and so we arranged for Elijah to become the manager for the school mountain bike team. At practices, he would check-in the riders and at bike races he would give them their race numbers. We drove all over the state for the races; Elijah rang a cowbell as the riders passed by in a cloud of dust.
Even though he wasn’t likely to give them a response, popular and friendly boys and girls on the team began to greet Elijah in the hallway. At the end of the season, the Executive Director of the Utah High School Cycling League challenged us to have Elijah ride for the team the next year. Despite her insistence, it didn’t seem like a possibility. Elijah had tried and failed to ride a bike for years.
We found a national organization called iCanShine.org who claimed an 80% success rate in teaching those with special needs to learn to ride a 2-wheel bike. Their solution was a 5-day bike camp with specialized equipment and trained staff. The program was not offered in Utah, but after consideration we decided to make the commitment to Elijah and the community to bring them in.
Learning to ride a bike is a right of passage for most people. We remember when and where we were. It is a hard thing to do. 80% to 90% of those with special needs never learn to ride a bike. For them, it is an even harder thing to do. Our generation is prone to try and make the path easier for our children. We fail to recognize the source of our own strength. When we remove hard things from the lives of our children, we also remove opportunities for growth, strength, and character.
As difficult as it is to allow hard things for our children, it is even harder to allow hard things for our special needs children. They are already very familiar with failure, but when those with special needs discover they can accomplish hard things it can be transformative. Once they know they can do one hard thing, they start thinking they can do other hard things as well.
In time, the special needs bike camp began and the captain of the Corner Canyon mountain bike team walked beside Elijah encouraging him with every pedal. On the third day, when Elijah rode on two wheels for the first time, we fought back the tears. We knew we would become emotional if Elijah learned to ride a bike, but we were surprised at how emotional we got when most of the other 39 participants rode for the first time. One Mother wrote about her 21-year-old son, “When we returned from camp, I brought his 17 year old sister to the window and tears filled her eyes as Nate rode his bike up the driveway”.
Learning to ride upright on a simple bike under controlled conditions with a spotter along side was still a far cry from riding a mountain bike outdoors. We spent the entire summer day after day, first in the church parking lot and then in the school parking lot, and on to paved trails, hills, dirt trails, and so on. Breaking, steering, coasting (still can’t do it, breaks and pedals at the same time), and changing gears was (is) a slow and painful process. There were falls and frustration. Sometimes his only motivation was the promise of a Mutant Turtle shaved ice when we were done. Elijah spent hour after hour, day after day, working hard just to ride with a semblance of what came naturally for his 7-year-old brother, Noah, riding along side.
The mountain bike season began and at each race, a special course was laid out and the difficulty slightly increased. Other special needs kids were recruited and rode as well. The “Elevate” special needs race became a crowd favorite. Riders, parents, coaches from every team gathered to cheer on Elijah and the others.
The final race of the year was the state championship in St. George. The course was substantially more challenging; a half-mile of red rock, obstacles and ravines. We arrived the day before and spent hours practicing the course. If the difficult course was not enough, on the day of the race we discovered Elijah had lost his glasses. We spent hours searching, but to no avail. Elijah’s fears were at the breaking point.
I have seen courage before, but on that day a scared, quiet autistic boy got on a bike he had only recently learned to ride, and traversed a red rock course in Southern Utah that he could not see. It was courage redefined.
At the end-of-year banquet, Elijah turned his medal over and over in his hands as the standing ovation died down. As tears clouded my eyes, I noticed a gleam in his. I don’t know if he knew how hard his future would still be, but what he did know is that he could do hard things too.
The link to this specific page at iCanShine.org will show readers where programs exist throughout the country. To read about the program the Palmers initiated in northern Utah, be sure to visit cycleability.org.
For more background on Elijah and his family, you will enjoy reading his father’s previous Essay, The Sword or the Angel.