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Meet the Sacramento runner with nonverbal autism competing in the Boston Marathon

Sacramento Bee - 3/24/2019

March 24-- Mar. 24--The maxim that actions speak louder than words is true for any marathon runner.

In John Almeda's case, it goes much farther than that.

Almeda is 24, from Sacramento, and has nonverbal autism. He rarely lets anything stop his running pursuits -- except, maybe, his mom.

On a recent Sunday, as a group of runners warmed up to jog around McKinley Park, Almeda took off sped off to lead the pack, letting a giant grin spread across his face.

The runners, donned in neon green "Fly Brave" T-shirts, chased behind. The training was underway.

After roughly an hour, the runners rounded their last corner and came together for a cool down -- except for Almeda, who was nowhere to be found. After a quick scan, his mother Vanessa Bieker spotted him: He was across the park, still on the track running. She waved him down and finally persuaded him to take a break.

Almeda is making his final preparations to run in this year's Boston Marathon in April. He qualified for the race on his first try in 2017 after competing in the California International Marathon, but wasn't able to compete on running's biggest stage straight away.

"He broke his ankle at Mile 6," Bieker said of his first CIM run. "The paramedics were trying to get him off, my friend jumped on at like Mile 22 and he was pushing her away. He was not going to give up. He ran that whole thing."

Even with the broken ankle, Almeda finished the 2017 CIM in 4 hours, 27 minutes, which qualified him for the Boston Marathon. Almeda ran the CIM again in 2018 and finished in 3:17, which gave him a higher seed for the marathon.

"He is first and foremost a runner who also happens to have nonverbal autism," his mom Vanessa Bieker said. "He's just so alive in the world through this running."

Almeda discovered the sport in 2016 after Bieker took him on a walk and they happened to find a track. Since then, running has given him the opportunity to explore "so many different abilities," Bieker said, and has helped him set goals and reduce his stress.

"He was going through a lot of anxiety, so we started going for long walks at night," his mom, Vanessa Bieker said. "The track at Hiram Johnson was open one night. And so we went down and I said, go ahead and run around the track. And he started running around it and I could hear him laughing, and his form was beautiful."

Bieker said after he was done running, Almeda slept through the night, an unusual feat because of the anxiety he experienced.

"It just kind of opened up his mind and he, he just developed all this confidence, his hand-eye coordination became stronger and his awareness in the world became stronger," Bieker said. "It's like this running has just completely like opened his mind and his subconscious and everything."

From there, Almeda joined the Sacramento County Chargers Special Olympics track and field team, which Bieker said helped him foster his passion for running. Almeda began running races, starting with a 5K and working his way towards full marathons.

With help from Fleet Feet Racing marathon coach Darren Morgan, Almeda hopes to finish the race in three hours. As part of his training routine, he runs with others with autism spectrum disorder and their family members on Sunday mornings at McKinley Park in East Sacramento.

The Run Club is organized through Fly Brave, the nonprofit organization Bieker started to help adults with developmental disabilities find educational or social opportunities for him.

"When my son was aging out of the system, I went and looked around at what was available for him and I came up short," Bieker said.

As more families joined and the news of Almeda's running skills grew, so did Bieker's plans for the organization.

"People that come out to this running club and people that support him, they see, here's someone with nonverbal autism with the odds stacked against him and has turned around and has not let that autism define him," Bieker said. "You know, autism is part of who he is, but it does not define him."

Fly Brave has expanded its offerings to include events like basketball clinics, public speaking classes, art classes, social groups, comedy improv classes, prom and law enforcement buddy workout program.

"I took a leap of faith and I started this, that was three years ago, and now we serve 200 families and have numerous platforms where these kids to adults to come out and pick something that they're interested in and we provide it."

She said the group's goal is eventually to become an employment training program that focuses on teaching hands-on community experience, social skills and healthy living.

Fifty-eight percent of young adults with ASD do not work a job between high school and their early 20s, according to the Drexel University A.J. Drexel Autism Institute. Nearly 99 percent of young adults without disabilities in the United States will work between the ages of 21 and 25 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"(Adults with autism) approach us with what they'd like to do and we build a program around it," Bieker said. "So we use the voices of these adults on the spectrum with what their gifts and talents are and what's lacking in the community and turn around and let them drive their own pilot program."


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