News Article Details

Cross country helps Sipes blossom

The Hawk Eye - 10/4/2018

Oct. 04--COLUMBUS JUNCTION -- Coletrane Sipes just wanted to fit in.

Until he came to Columbus High School, Sipes could count the number of friends he had on one hand, and he wouldn't have to use many fingers.

When Sipes was in second grade, he was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a developmental disorder characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.

Sipes was ostracized. He had no friends, felt alone, ashamed, confused. No matter what he did or where he went, he just didn't seem to fit in. It seemed to Sipes that no one liked him.

All he really wanted was to be loved, to feel like he fit in, to feel like he was a part of something greater.

Sipes found just what he was looking for on the Columbus cross country team. Sipes' mother, Holly Canny, is the junior high cross country coach at Columbus. She convinced her son to give the sport a try his freshman year, so he became the manager for the Columbus High School cross country program.

A year later, with a little nudge from J.D. Lekwa and Chase Wheeler, Sipes decided to put down the notebook and put on his running shoes.

Cross country was just the medicine Sipes needed to bring him out of his shell. Since then, Sipes, now a senior, has become one of the more popular kids in school. He has excelled on the speech team, where he received a one rating at state last year. He is near the top of his class with a 3.99 grade-point average. Last week he was voted onto the Homecoming court. And he recently earned the honor of Eagle Scout. He repainted and fixed up the animal shelter in Washington as his Eagle Scout project.

Sipes credits the diverse culture in Columbus Junction with helping the people accept him for who he is. Since arriving at Columbus High School, Sipes has blossomed into the person his mother and father, Justin Sipes, always knew he was deep down inside. And Sipes is flourishing, both on the cross country course and off.

"It's different from other schools here. A, it's tiny, so you can try everything. It's not a humongous school like Iowa City or Burlington or someplace like that, where you have to try out for everything. Also, it's more diverse than other schools, so you get to experience different things," Sipes said. "If you make the effort to get to know other kids, you can make friends. Obviously if you don't make the effort, then no."

"One of the coolest parts for me is he didn't have any friends until he was almost going into high school. Coletrane didn't make friends. Something happened between junior high and high school. He just all of a sudden came out of his shell. To have him go from no friends to being on the Homecoming court ... unless you've been through it the whole time, you don't realize how dramatic, how amazing it is to watch," Canny said. "He was diagnosed at the end of his second-grade year with a mild form of Aspergers and anxiety disorder. Before that it was hell. He had several teachers who weren't very understanding of what was going on with him. It was wonderful for me to have a label put to it so I could help him. For the bad rap that Columbus gets, every teacher has been wonderful. That was one thing he likes about this school. Everyone here is so accepting of differences. It does not matter what you look like, if you have autism or whatever. People just accept everyone. I don't think you see that just anywhere. I really feel like this community has helped him become this outgoing kid that you see now. That's not what he was five, 10 years ago."

Sipes has become a vital part of the Wildcats' cross country team. Whether he competes for the varsity team or runs in the junior-varsity meet, he keeps things lively and loose. Columbus head cross country coach Steve Riley has watched Sipes grow up before his very eyes the last four years. It is one of the things that makes coaching so rewarding.

"His first meet was his sophomore year at Mount Pleasant. His time for a 5K was 33:56. Compare that to his best time. Last year he ran 23:05 at Winfield. So he's cut almost 11 minutes off his time in two years. He's really come a long ways," Riley said. "He's one of the best kids I've ever been around. I feel honored to get the privilege to coach him and teach him. He's probably taught me more than I've taught him."

Sipes felt isolated as a child, awkward and uncomfortable around people, too shy to reach out to others. He was lonely. He just wanted to be loved and accepted for who he is. He finally decided not to use his Asperger syndrome as a crutch, but rather as a tool, to let others see the real Coletrane Sipes. Since arriving at Columbus, he has gained that acceptance and trust. People love Sipes for who he is now that they understand his background.

"Asperger's kind of cut me off socially. I don't feel like it hurt anything else, academically or otherwise. But I feel like it cut me off socially. It made me feel like I was on a separate island from everyone else. I felt alone, like nobody liked me. That's what I felt like," Sipes said. "I remember the school I used to go to when I was in first and second grade still. Those schools were not so nice. They were not really accepting. Unless you put yourself out there a ton and took big risks, you were not noticed. That's another reason why I like this school. You don't have to stick your neck out very far to be noticed. Whereas in larger schools you really have to do a lot to be noticed and make friends and things.

"Cross country brought me out of my shell. That and speech."

"He's always been open and honest. He would tell kids he has Asperger's and tell them what it's about. I think that helped the kids understand better where he is coming from. Plus the kids in high school have matured. He has always associated better with adults," Canny said.

"I think that Coletrane is a really neat story for a variety of reasons. One, he's just a very well-rounded kid. When he says he's at the top of his class, he had a 3.9999 grade-point average. He's a very good student. He plans to go to the University of Iowa. He wants to be a college history teacher. What he knows most about is history and he's really good at it. The other thing about him is he is a really well-liked kid at our school. A good example of that is he was just one of the Homecoming candidates. We're really proud of him for that," Riley said. "The other thing that really makes him a cool kid is that he has Asperger's. He's unique in a lot of different ways. We love his very dry sense of humor. A few years ago we went to the Keota meet and we sat there and sat there because it was raining so hard. He told the teacher, 'Well, we just kind of sat there on the bus until somebody said, 'Let's just get the hell out of here.' He's got a dry and funny sense of humor."

Sipes will get one last run on the home course today when Columbus hosts the SEI Superconference meet at 4:30 p.m. at Cedarcrest Country Club, the place where it all started for Sipes. The kid with the unique run will get one final chance to compete in front of the home fans, the same people who have accepted him for who he is, love him for the person he has become, helped bring him out of his shell. It is a special meet at a special place in front of a group of people who hold s special place in Sipes' heart.

"Coletrane is a very modest kid. He doesn't like to talk about himself," Canny said. "When (Justin) and I first started dating, the first date we went on was to the movie, 'Mr. Holland's Opus' which, coincidentally is about a kid with a disability. It inspired me. They named their child Coletrane. That's where we got the name from. It suits him."

"I like hanging out with people. Running can be fun. It's not like other sports where it's all work and no play. You can have fun with running. Whereas like football or something you're just whacking each other and you're getting screamed at. In cross country there isn't as much screaming," Sipes said. "Cross country really helped. That team a couple years ago was really supportive. I used that to pull myself up and become more active socially."

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(c)2018 The Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa)

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