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Happy ending: wheelchair-bound boys allowed to join July 4 Foot Races after initial denial

Syracuse Chargers Track Club reverses controversial decision amid public outrage, national media exposure

Jack and Nolan Willis, and members of Team 2 Smiles, take off from the starting line of the Cazenovia July 4 Foot Races 10-mile run last week.

Jack and Nolan Willis, and members of Team 2 Smiles, take off from the starting line of the Cazenovia July 4 Foot Races 10-mile run last week. Photo by Jason Emerson.

— The news broke early Wednesday morning, July 2, that the Syracuse Chargers Track Club had denied 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.

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 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, Washington Times, Newsday and Runner’s World, 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,” Alison Dwyer Willis, Jack’s and Nolan’s mother, told the Cazenovia Republican. “All this publicity was unintended. We didn’t go to media. All my kids want to do is race, and they can’t.”

After nearly 36 hours of public outrage and national media attention, the Chargers board reversed its decision and announced that the Willis brothers would be allowed to participate after all. 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 — started at 8:30 a.m. from the 10-mile start line, 15 minutes before the general race of the 10-mile race. The Chargers also created a team category for the boys and their teams of pushers, and the Cazenovia village police and local volunteers provided additional resources to keep everyone involved safe.

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