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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 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, who worked with race organizers and Team 2 Smiles members to find a solution to the issue. “Organizing a major road race takes hundreds of details to work out; it’s not just having people line up and firing a gun. Incorporating the boys into the run was not a simple thing — we needed to figure out how to do and do it safely.”

Shortly after the decision to let Team 2 Smiles participate was announced, Alison Dwyer Willis posted on the Cazenovia Republican Facebook page: “We cannot thank the town and village of Cazenovia, the Cazenovia residents, and the hundreds of other supporters who have voiced their support in our favor. We are excited to race tomorrow!”

Controversial decision

The story started about three weeks ago, when Team 2 Smiles member Rick Cote asked the Syracuse Chargers for permission to let the Willis brothers and team 2 Smiles run in the Cazenovia July 4 Foot Races 10-mile race.

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. 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, said Alison Dwyer Willis.

“It was electric; everyone was so into having them race,” she said. “The boys loved it; they felt almost normal for once. So they wanted to do it again.”

For the 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. They did, and Cote submitted the request to participate.

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