Jul 07, 2014 Jason Emerson Uncategorized
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.
“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!”
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.
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.
Once news got out about the Chargers’ decision, other runners already registered for the race announced their intentions 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 disagreed with the Charger board’s decision, he deferred 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 there 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.
After multi-party discussions that carried on through the evening of July 2 and the morning of July 3, the Syracuse Chargers’ board ultimately reversed its decision and declared its intention to allow the Willis brothers and team 2 Smiles to participate.
“My foundation and I personally really appreciate the support of the town, the village and many, many residents who have stood behind us,” Alison Dwyer Willis said. “We’ve had such an outpouring of support and could not be more grateful.”
Wheeler said the final, positive outcome occurred because of the numerous people who worked “calmly and constructively” behind the scenes to find a solution that would be acceptable and beneficial to everyone involved, and he thanked them for their efforts.
On the other hand, Wheeler said, during this two-day controversy there were also large amounts of people who acted “wildly inappropriate” regarding the entire matter.
“There were a whole bunch of people who thought they were doing good by being visceral and nasty, who actually gummed up the works. I received a lot of emails and phone calls cursing me out. Every minute I spent on those … was one less minute that I had to do something constructive,” Wheeler said. “A lot of people on social networks, email and on the phone, instead of being humane and constructive and looking for a positive outcome, have really been rude. I want to emphasize that everyone putting on race is a volunteer — we’re giving up time with our families to do something nice for the whole group of people. To treat any of them like villains or bad people, or accuse them of deliberately being discriminatory is really unfair. I hope there’s a lesson to be learned from this.”
For more information about Two Smiles One Hope, the Syracuse-based Foundation created by the Willis Family to help end Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, visit its website at twosmilesonehope.com.
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.