Jul 02, 2014 Jason Emerson Uncategorized
This story was updated at 1:30 p.m Thursday, July 3
A solution has been found to the quell the recent brouhaha over the Syracuse Chargers Track Club’s denial of the request of 12-year-old twin boys, Jack and Nolan Willis of Manlius, who have muscular dystrophy and are wheelchair-bound, from participating in the annual Cazenovia July 4 Foot Races 10-mile race tomorrow.
After nearly 36 hours of outrage and criticism directed against the club for its decision, the Chargers board announced that the Willis brothers will be allowed to participate in the race. The boys and their running group — Team 2 Smiles, a group of six to seven experienced runners who take turns pushing the boys’ racing buggies in the race — will start at 8:30 a.m. from the 10-mile start line. This is 15 minutes before the general start of the 10-mile race. The Chargers also have created a team category for the boys and their teams of pushers, and the Cazenovia village police and local volunteers are providing additional resources to keep everyone involved safe.
“The bottom line is we were able to work out a good solution and try to cover logistical and safety-related concerns, and came up with a good outcome,” said Mayor Kurt Wheeler.
Wheeler said that after a series of ongoing emails and discussions between the race organizers and Team 2 Smiles Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, a “successful formula” was found to allow the boys to participate in a way that was safe for them, their team and the other runners in the race.
The news broke early Wednesday morning, July 2, that the Syracuse Chargers Track Club had denied the request of Jack and Nolan Willis from participating in the annual Cazenovia July 4 Foot Races 10-mile race this Friday.
Although the brothers have participated in such races before — being pushed in racing buggy/baby jogger-type conveyances by a group of six or seven experienced runners — the board of the track club decided that the request created too many safety hazards for participating runners as well as for the “passengers and pushers of those conveyances,” and therefore denied the request.
The brothers and their family and friends were disappointed; their supporters were angered; and many racers have declared intentions to boycott the race in protest.
Within hours of the story being posted online in Syracuse, it became national news — getting picked up and published by the Associated Press, with the Wall Street Journal and Newsday, among other news outlets, posting the news on their websites.
“I grew up in Caz; I don’t want Caz painted in bad light; we don’t want a backlash on the town or even against the Syracuse Chargers,” said Alison Dwyer Willis, Jack’s and Nolan’s mother. “All this publicity was unintended. We didn’t go to media. All my kids want to do is race, and they can’t.”
The Willis brothers, who have Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a fatal genetic disorder, have already participated in two other local marathon races: the SkanRaces “Skinnyman” race and the Syracuse half marathon. They participate through Team 2 Smiles — a group of six to seven experienced runners who take turns pushing the boys’ racing buggies in the race. The team is a part of Two Smiles One Hope, a Syracuse-based Foundation created by the Willis Family to help end Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, according to the website twosmilesonehope.com.
In those two races — especially the Skinnyman — there was never any safety issues or incidents, the Willis family and Team 2 Smiles members “went out of their way” to ensure safety and race organizers accommodated the brothers by letting them start early, Willis said.
“It was electric; everyone was so into having them race,” Willis said. “The boys loved it; they felt almost normal for once. So they wanted to do it again.”
For this Friday’s July 4 Foot Race in Cazenovia, the Willis brothers originally were going to help their family members hand out glasses of water to the 10-mile runners at their water station on North Lake Road — as the family has done for 14 years. But their mother recently realized that the boys’ arms were too weak to hold the water cups out to racers, so instead of making the boys sit on the sidelines and watch, she asked them if they wanted to run the race, she said.
So about two or three weeks ago, Team 2 Smiles member Rick Cote asked the Syracuse Chargers for permission to let the team run in the 10-mile race.
Dave Oja, president of the Chargers track club, responded that the club’s board of directors felt that having the running conveyances in the race would pose too much of a safety and health hazard to the brothers, their team and the other race participants, and that the course characteristics raised even greater safety concerns for everyone.
“I believe that each of the members of our board of directors admires your generous intentions in providing these experiences to children with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, but — as a board — we have an overriding obligation to do everything we can to make Chargers-conducted events as safe as possible for all participants,” Oja wrote.
In response to requests for comment from numerous media outlets, including the Cazenovia Republican, Oja stated in an email that while the club does not and never has prohibited the participation of individuals in self-propelled wheelchairs in its races, the club’s rules specifically prohibit certain items from being used during a race, including “baby joggers.” The board’s denial therefore, “was focused on the safety and wisdom of ignoring our Club’s and the event’s own policy prohibiting use of baby joggers and similar conveyances in the race,” he stated.
Reports indicate that other runners already registered for the race plan to boycott the event in protest, while postings on social media and comments on various news websites are overwhelmingly critical of the Chargers’ board decision.
On the Cazenovia Republican Facebook page, comments have been posted such as, “If I had registered I would be boycotting;” and “I will never participate in a race that the Syracuse chargers sponsor ever again!” and “Syracuse Chargers should be ashamed of themselves.”
Cazenovia Town Supervisor Bill Zupan shared such sentiments, saying he was, “thoroughly disgusted” with the Syracuse Chargers for not accommodating the Willis brothers and their team.
“This isn’t what the Fourth of July or Cazenovia stands for. I can’t believe they would be that arrogant to say no,” Zupan said.
The July 4 Foot Race 10-miler does not occur on any town roads — it is on village, county and state roads — but the 5K race does, and the use of those roads must be approved in advance by the Cazenovia Town Board. And next year, if the Syracuse Chargers run the July 4 races, the town may not give that approval.
“Next year we’ll look very closely whether we want them heading up the race or not,” Zupan said. “I haven’t talked to the rest of the board yet, but that’s my opinion. I think it’s pretty sickening. There’s probably other running clubs that could do something next year.”
On the village side, Mayor Kurt Wheeler said that while he disagrees with the Charger board’s decision, he defers to their experience and expertise in organizing a safe and successful event, as they have been doing for the past four decades.
“I’m sympathetic to the desire of the boys and their supporters to participate, and I hope that some resolution can be reached with regard to that request. However, the Syracuse Chargers have done a magnificent job putting on this race for the past 42 years, and I truly believe their only motivation is concern for the safety of the 1,000 other runners in the race, and certainly not from any desire to discriminate against anybody,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler said that he spoke to Oja Tuesday, July 1, and said the village had no opposition to the Willis brothers participation, but Oja was “very firm” in his decision.
“If I could overrule it I would, but it’s not my decision,” Wheeler said.
The village board did give the Chargers approval to hold this year’s race in Lakeland Park and on village streets. Whether or not that permission could be in jeopardy next year is a premature question, Wheeler said. “That is a discussion to be had at a later time with cooler heads and when we understand all the potential legal issues involved,” he said.
As of the end of the day on July 2 — a little more than 36 hours before the start of the races — the Syracuse Chargers board had not reached out to the Willis family or changed its decision.
“They’re disappointed; they really love to race,” Alison Dwyer Willis said of her sons. “We were just denied the opportunity to race. It seems like for no good reason. The blanket ‘safety concerns’ is not a good enough reason.”
If the Chargers board does not change its mind, the Willis brothers will watch the race with their family as they have done in years past, and they will continue to hope that they will be allowed to participate next year, Alison said.
“My foundation and I personally really appreciate the support of the town, the village and many, many residents who have stood behind us,” she said. “We’ve had such an outpouring of support and could not be more grateful.”
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.