Evanston's Aaron Holzmueller hasn't let cerebral palsy keep him from competing as a college runner. And he has his eyes on a future Paralympic Games.
Chicago Tribune - 7/10/2019
Jul. 10--When Aaron Holzmueller was a child, he was so active in sports, the physical therapist he worked with to ease the difficulties of cerebral palsy told Holzmueller to cancel the rest of his appointments.
"After running so much, they said, 'We don't need you to come here because these are the stretches you're doing with the team,' " Holzmueller said. "It's helped me stay physically fit."
A 2018 graduate of Evanston Township High School, Holzmueller played soccer and baseball, ran track and cross-country and swam in his youth, and he continues to challenge himself as an athlete. Even a last-place finish doesn't deter him from his mission of improving his times and performances.
He was recently named Beloit College's inspirational athlete of the year, competing in track and cross-country as a freshman for the Division III program in Wisconsin. His sights are set on competing in the Paralympic Games, likely aiming for 2024 in the 800- and 1,500-meter races.
This summer, he's competing in local road races and working out with his father, Keith, at the Evanston track and cross-country course to continue his conditioning before his sophomore season at Beloit.
"He thrives in the fact that he's just part of the team," Beloit track and field coach Brian Bliese said. "It's that intrinsic value that he relishes. He loves the involvement. I'm not saying (he) loves attention. He loves being one of the guys.
"Our team is a bunch of great kids and they have been very supportive. Aaron's enthusiasm, it's witnessed everywhere we go, every track meet, every cross-country meet. They recognize his enthusiasm. He prepares like everyone else. He works hard, and his times have gotten better."
In Illinois, Holzmueller learned that victories don't have to mean first-place finishes. He learned that on the track and athletic fields in his youth. And he learned it in the courts.
He and his family sued the IHSA to allow para-ambulatory athletes -- those who have disabilities but don't use wheelchairs -- to compete in the state track meet with accommodation for time standards. A federal appellate court in February 2018 ruled against his appeal of an earlier denial in U.S. District Court.
"I just wanted to try to get awareness out," Holzmueller said. "Even though I didn't get the result I was hoping for, I wanted to let people know about runners like me. I definitely can see it changing one day."
Holzmueller's parents knew early that their son had cerebral palsy, a condition that affects his balance, coordination and muscular control.
They did their best to put him in inclusive environments, from schools to sports teams. He watched his dad run in local clubs and saw his older brother running.
"My husband was saying when the kids were young, 'I'll focus on running with our older son and chess with Aaron,' " Holzmueller's mom, Birdy, said with a laugh. "Well, my older son is a huge chess player."
His parents were honest and positive with Aaron from a young age.
"One of my big phrases to him when he was young was: 'You're a pioneer. Illinois was full of pioneers, and you're one,' " Birdy said.
She adopted advice she heard from a preschool inclusion coordinator.
"When he was 3 or 4," Birdy said, "she said: 'If you tell him that he has cerebral palsy and there are just going to be things that are harder to do, it becomes part of his life narrative. It becomes a part of who he is. It doesn't make it a big drama.'
"It was really good advice. He would always prefer to be with the able-bodied kids, and obviously he would love to be competitive at that level at some sense. He's adjusted to who he is."
Holzmueller took to running early, competing at age 6 in the Ricky Byrdsong Memorial Race Against Hate youth mile race.
"We stopped and petted every dog," Birdy said. "The next year he said: 'Mom, you slow me down. I have to do my own thing.' He's a very competitive person."
Holzmueller also has competed since 2010 with the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association, an organization with swimming, running and hockey competitions for people with disabilities. But Birdy said Holzmueller always wanted to challenge himself against able-bodied competitors.
That didn't change when it was time to look at colleges. He emailed various schools and scheduled visits with any coach who emailed him back. He considered participating at a club level, but he said he benefits greatly from being on a team.
When he visited Beloit, coaches introduced him to the team and treated him like any other prospective athlete.
"He really stood out," Bliese said. "Something about him was special. You could tell immediately he had a passion for running and is very intelligent. I thought, 'This is a kid we would love to work with.' "
"This is new for me. I welcomed it," Beloit cross-country coach Dave Eckburg said. "I (recently) called a prospective athlete with cerebral palsy and he mentioned that he had heard Aaron's story. With Aaron, it's really fun to talk to him. He has a great personality."
Coaches recalled one meet in Myrtle Beach, S.C., when Holzmueller was last to make his way around the track, and the entire crowd, including athletes and coaches, cheered him on to the finish.
"I try to let our kids know it's a privilege to be on a college team, to have the health and the ability to work in a physical setting, (that) they should relish that," Bliese said. "They see Aaron and it humbles them and motivates them."
Holzmueller said previous coaches would tell his teammates they couldn't quit until he tired. And that usually took a while.
"I just enjoy trying to improve my times and being the best I can be," he said. "Even though you're running against other people, you're running to do your personal best in your distance."
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