- Associated Press - Friday, November 4, 2016

OAK RIDGE, Mo. (AP) - Having cerebral palsy doesn’t mean Alexis Johnson is the only cross country runner that falls during a race. It just makes it more likely to occur.

So much so that as a seventh-grader at Oak Ridge competing for the first time, Johnson fell in all five races, the Southeast Missourian (https://bit.ly/2ffNKbZ ) reported. At a meet hosted by Kelly on a flat course in Benton, Missouri, she tripped twice over a tree branch. She kept getting back up and finishing the race, but it was discouraging at times.

“There was a time when it was like, ‘Am I ever going to quit falling in a race?’” Johnson said.

The setbacks ultimately didn’t affect her passion. She’s now a junior at Oak Ridge and has continued to compete. She still has to deal with the disability that affects her running motion as her left foot turns inside and drags close to the ground. Her balance has improved, though. For the first time, she didn’t fall once during a meet this season. And she’s having fun, which is what her grandmother Vera Archer wants.

“She’s met her goal,” Archer said. “She’s done something for her that she enjoys. That boosts us up.”

Even during that tough first year Johnson was overjoyed to be running alongside her peers in races. Archer recalled a race at Cape Girardeau Central High School when the wife of Central’s coach saw Johnson go down when running up a hill.

“She looked at her husband and said ‘I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it,’” Archer remembers. “‘There was this little girl that fell up that hill, and she got up with the biggest smile on her face.’ Just the fact she got to be there was the smile.”

That perseverance has helped Johnson through her life as she grew from a toddler who couldn’t walk until she was 18 months old - and only then with the help of braces - to a 16-year-old competing in the sport. Along the way, Johnson has had multiple surgeries, worn leg braces, gone through different kinds of therapy and dealt with bones that grow faster than her muscles can stretch.

Cross country has provided an outlet, and she’s come to enjoy practices. For those two hours, Johnson doesn’t have to think about other concerns. She just runs.

“It’s one of those things I look forward to doing after school, especially when I’ve had a rough day at school,” Johnson said. “I’m able to go out there and just run and clear my head and just think about other things than school for once.”

Johnson’s interest in cross country was piqued in seventh-grade when some classmates mentioned they were trying out for the sport. Johnson always has loved physical activity. She’s played volleyball and softball. She’s been doing martial arts since 2009 - three years before she started running.

That interest in keeping the body moving - “if you don’t use, you lose it,” Archer says - combined with Johnson’s determination to show people she could compete propelled her into the world of cross country.

“When you have cerebral palsy you’re always having people telling you, you can’t do something,” Johnson said. “So I wanted to go out and show people, ‘Hey, I may have this, but I’m going to just stand here and do what everybody else can do.’”

That first season she wasn’t allowed to train with the team since they usually ran on country roads and Archer was afraid of Johnson falling on a hard surface. So as the teenager ran 800s around the high school field every day she set a goal - to run an 800 consistently without stopping. By the end of the season she had exceeded that benchmark - she was running two 800s without a break.

During those five races her first season, Johnson would fall everywhere. She always had trouble balancing, Archer said, since she stands on her toes instead of the balls of her feet. So that initial campaign, running up a hill or her foot grazing a tuft of grass could send Johnson tumbling. But she found a community that was nurturing and genuine.

When Johnson was at a Notre Dame meet as an eighth-grader, she started walking toward the end of the race. As her coach provided encouragement and Archer jogged on the grass beside the track, a boys high school runner working as a spotter started to run alongside the track with Johnson and encourage her. When Johnson reached the home stretch, the boy fell back and told Johnson “you’re on your own” as she hustled toward the finish line.

After watching Johnson compete in that race, North County sophomore Martha Peacock, who placed 10th in the JV contest, came up to Johnson and draped her medal around Johnson’s neck.

“She was way stronger than anyone else was,” Peacock said later when she received the Raider Pride Award at a school board meeting that was covered by The Daily Journal. “If anyone deserved a medal that day, she did.”

To able to run with cerebral palsy, Johnson has to do more stretches than her teammates. Her muscles can get so tight she once had surgery to repair her hip, Archer said.

Over the years, her stride has gotten longer as she’s worked with a running therapist and continued to work on flexibility in martial arts.

So with those impediments, success for Johnson isn’t defined by first-place finishes. She wants to participate and be treated like everyone else - not given preferential or unfair treatment. And like many other racers, she wants to run faster than she did before.

One of her favorite memories is from a race her sophomore year when she set her current personal record, 33 minutes, 29 seconds. When her coach Kristi Seyer told her she had bettered her previous best time, Johnson went crazy, screaming and shouting “I did it.”

Sometimes, Johnson doesn’t meet her goals. Before the season, she and Seyer discussed running a race in 28 minutes. That didn’t come to fruition, but Johnson has one more season left after running in the Class 1 District 1 meet Saturday (she finished last).

No matter where she’s finished, she’s inspired and awed other runners, such as Peacock, and other coaches, including Saxony Lutheran’s Larry Cleair.

“She was doing just such a great job of overcoming that condition and just showing so much courage that at the first meet that I saw her this year I was just inspired by the way she worked and kept pressing through,” Cleair said. “With a lot of athletes, even if they are not very good, they are convinced with a little more training they will be up there and be champion runners.

“And I’m sure she doesn’t have illusions that she will be winning races. But she’s just an inspiration. I was impressed by her.”

Archer is simply thankful that Johnson is able to compete and do something she loves along with developing friendships along the way. Every year at the Jackson Invitational, Johnson runs with another competitor dealing with cerebral palsy. That Fox cross country runner has even suffered a stroke on her left side.

When Johnson was in horse therapy - children ride horses and the animal’s warmth is supposed to relax the muscles - she saw children with all kinds of physical and mental disabilities. There were kids who wouldn’t open up unless they were around the animals, others who couldn’t communicate verbally and some who were confined to wheelchairs.

After those experiences, Archer feels blessed when she sees her granddaughter running in a meet with a smile on her face. Plus, she recognizes how far Johnson has come.

Saturday, that feeling of progress was reinforced by one of Johnson’s old horse therapists who came to the district meet. The last time she had seen Johnson the young girl was still in braces. So when the therapist saw the former patient out there running on the track, she was taken aback.

“She was shocked, but she was pleased,” Archer said.

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Information from: Southeast Missourian, https://www.semissourian.com

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