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BOYS CROSS COUNTRY: Cerebral palsy can't stop Crown Point's Labus

Times - 10/19/2018

Oct. 19--CROWN POINT -- As Crown Point's Will Labus appeared as a flash of red hair on the final downslope at Lemon Lake County Park, his entire support section went wild.

His mother, Kathy, had spent the race angsting over Will's time, while his grandfather, Bob Hooper, knew from his timer Will was on pace. The Labus family, Crown Point assistant coach Erik Forehand, and a group of Bulldogs parents erupted as he made his way down the hill half-smiling and half in exhausted agony while he finished off his favorite course.

While Will wasn't among the leaders at the Duneland Athletic Conference Junior Varsity race, his family couldn't have been prouder. He slashed his time from a race less than two months earlier at Lemon Lake by 6 minutes and 10 seconds despite facing unique challenges posed by his cerebral palsy, a condition that affects muscles and movement.

The Crown Point freshman runs with a brace on his lower left leg. His left leg doesn't function quite the same as his right. In addition to the Bulldogs' summer long runs, Will attended physical therapy ahead of this season to strengthen the muscles on his left side.

"I've made a lot of improvements in high school, and I definitely have to thank the coaches for that," Will said. "I want to continue running, because it's not just about the sport. It's something that you can do for the rest of your life."

In the wake of Nike's signing of University of Oregon runner Justin Gallegos -- who also has cerebral palsy -- those who know Will said his story can serve as inspiration. Will is not on Crown Point's 12-man tournament roster -- the Bulldogs are competing at the New Prairie semistate meet Saturday -- but he continues to practice with the team. In fact, he hasn't missed a practice all season.

Will continues to wake up early, head to 5 a.m. practice in the dark and run with a group he loves. Crown Point has one of the top boys cross country teams around, so he generally finds himself running alone behind the pack.

Yet Will remains determined. Despite fighting pain in the bottom of his foot and the early wake-up, Will loves cross country so much that he sometimes texts his mother during the day saying he can't wait to run after school.

Forehand, who was Will's coach at Colonel John Wheeler Middle School, often sends the Crown Point team reminders and links to motivational videos. A particular TED talk about mental toughness and determination that Forehand dispersed made Kathy realize the extent of her son's dedication.

"I listened to that TED talk that Coach Forehand sent, and I said, 'You know, Will, I think that you have a stronger mental fortitude than anybody I know,'" Kathy said. "I just think he's stronger than he knows, for sure, and I'm seeing it in a young man coming up, developing. I'm proud of him."

Bulldogs head coach Keith Iddings said Will could have stopped attending the Bulldogs' early practices with his competitive season over, but instead Will continues to put his heart and soul into the sport.

Kathy said she encouraged him to keep showing up, but Will ultimately made the decision himself as he tries to keep his mileage up. Iddings and senior captain Drew Holok said Will's hard work has motivated the rest of the team and stands out as the type of leadership by example freshmen rarely contribute.

"I think it's kind of hard for somebody to not do the workout correctly when you've got this freshman who's overcoming all these challenges doing it," Iddings said. "What's your excuse? This kid is overcoming all of these obstacles and challenges, and he's coming in and doing the work. ... How can you not at least try as hard as he's trying?"

Will's love for the sport started developing years ago, and he started running with his grandfather, Hooper. This sport runs in the family and has for decades: Hooper is a well-known figure in the Northwest Indiana running community and attends every race with Will's grandmother, Louise Hooper, Kathy and Andrew Labus, Will's twin brother. Like Will, Andrew also has cerebral palsy and yet picked up the family pastime, anyway. Kathy pushes Andrew in a wheelchair in road races.

While the food and fun initially attracted Will to running when he was younger, his experience with Crown Point has helped cultivate a new level of commitment to running. Will said he loves the personal experience and sense of togetherness the team provides, and the Bulldogs' coaches have helped him make huge improvements after a trying middle school experience that included a stress fracture in sixth grade.

Fellow Bulldogs runner Sebastian Ashbach carpooled with Will early in the season, and Kathy said that gave Will an idea of what to expect. Ashbach's guidance smoothed the transition as Will walked into a completely new and potentially intimidating environment for a freshman just joining the team.

When Crown Point's season started, Will didn't get all his forms in on time and thus couldn't officially join the Bulldogs' first practice, according to Kathy. Junior Martin Marquez, one of Crown Point's varsity runners, had also forgotten his forms and went running with Will while the rest of the team conducted its official practice. Marquez waited for Will at every stop sign. And after Marquez finished his run, he turned around to meet Will, and they ran the final stretch together.

"No one has ever really treated me different, and we all sort of go through the same thing," Will said. "No matter what the pace is, everyone runs, and we all understand what everyone's going through during the race, and we all try our hardest."

Now, Will will focus on another offseason of improvement with a winter full of running. While many runners around the Region rest up, Will will go back to work -- Kathy said he runs more miles than she does.

Will finished the conference JV meet in 25 minutes, 35 seconds on Sept. 29. He has set a goal to break the 21-minute mark by his senior year, and his family thinks he can do it considering his accomplishments to this point.

"Kathy and Bob and I have consistently watched (Will and Andrew) smash everything that anybody said they couldn't do," Louise said. "Him cutting six minutes off his time, that's the same thing. How's he doing that? Where's that coming from?"

Wherever it comes from, Will's passion suggests it will only continue.

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(c)2018 The Times (Munster, Ind.)

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