Lakewood Jon Ruehle has three main areas of expertise, and after a track meet earlier this season, he dug into one of them watching several girls cry near the finish line of a race.
“Don’t they know the song?” he asked.
“What song?" Steamboat Springs High School track coach Lisa Renee Tumminello asked.
“'Big Girls Don’t Cry,'” Ruehle responded.
He could tell you plenty about that song and many others.
Ruehle, a Steamboat Springs High School track athlete born with autism, is very into music, especially oldies such as “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”
Even more than that, he’s interested in pets, especially dogs, and particularly his dog, Snuggles.
And even more than that, he’s wildly interested in elevators, escalators and moving walkways. He can recite detailed facts about various elevators from throughout Steamboat Springs and even Denver. He knows how many of each fill various landmarks, such as St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver — 24 elevators — and Denver International Airport — 53 moving walkways.
Running track is not one of Ruehle’s primary interests, and even Friday at the state track meet, the crowd roaring around him, he was thinking as much about the elevator in the press box at Jefferson County Stadium in Lakewood as he was the 100-meter dash he was moments from running.
“How many elevators do you think there are here?” he asked, glancing around the stadium.
It’s track, though, that’s helped Ruehle in ways his mother always hoped — it's helped build his confidence, helped bolster his relationships and helped prepare him for the world.
Ruehle was born prematurely, and he wasn’t given much of a chance at life even on his birthday.
He was blind in one eye and severely nearsighted in the other, and doctors gave him a 50-50 chance of living.
He did, but never like the other children his age.
In school, he often kept to himself, but his family moved to Steamboat Springs when he was in sixth grade and he slowly began to open up.
One thing that spurred that development was track.
A paraprofessional working with Ruehle in Steamboat suggested he give the junior high track team a try. Ruehle had always liked and done well in an annual one-mile fun run in school and went for the idea.
He ran through sixth, seventh and eighth grades and went out for the high school team this year.
There, he found a few friends he’d already developed, as well as a whole team of others eager to help.
For Kelsey Spognardi and Alex Tumminello, a friendship with Ruehle came first almost as an assignment for a class.
In the fall, Tumminello registered for a peer mentoring class offered by Steamboat Springs High School and was assigned to help Ruehle as he began to adjust to high school.
Spognardi took the same class in the spring and also ended up working with Ruehle.
Both Tumminello and Spognardi found more than an assignment in Ruehle, however, and as members of the track team, they were poised to build on the budding friendship when spring came.
Ruehle, meanwhile, continued to improve.
They both made the trip with him to state.
“He’s an inspiration,” Tumminello said. “He’s a daily reminder of what it’s like to overcome a lot and what it’s like to be super positive.”
Joining the team
Ruehle's not fast, but, as his mother said, he’s built like a cross country runner, with long legs and a lean body.
The farther he goes, the better he gets.
“He can just go and go and go,” track coach Lisa Renee Tumminello said. “If I say to the team, ‘You’re doing 15 100s the rest of the athletes will moan. Jon will just do 15 and he could do 15 more.”
Ruehle started competing with the team at meets with his eyes set on the Special Olympics Unified races at the state championships, which took place Friday and Saturday in Lakewood’s Jefferson County Stadium.
Those events are open to runners with a wide range of disabilities, but there weren’t any Unified events at meets Steamboat attended in the regular season.
Instead, at those meets, Ruehle registered for and raced in the open events, alongside every other athlete.
He got a warm reception.
“The officials, the athletes, the coaches, oh my goodness,” Lisa Renee Tumminello said. “Everyone was walking up and talking to him, shaking his hand, telling him they were happy to have him there.
“They laid out the red carpet. It was super.”
Along the way, Ruehle had no shortage of support from his teammates. Some, like Emily Wertz, Alex Tumminello and Kelsey Spognardi, would wait at the finish line at events, cheering, and they made a difference. The one week he competed at a junior varsity meet instead of a varsity meet with the girls, he had his worst time of the season.
Other athletes helped, too. As Ruehle prepared for the state meet last week in Steamboat, the whole team made laps on the track with him, keeping pace as he prepared for the big show.
Making a mark
Working with Ruehle on the track team has been a powerful experience for everyone involved, Ruehle included.
He raced three times at state, in 100- and 200-meter races Friday, then in a 100 again Saturday. He was awarded a medal for each outing and held it out to his friends and family as soon as he was back from the podium.
He frequently doesn’t talk much.
“No,” he wasn’t nervous.
“Fast” was the strategy.
“Yes,” it was fun.
What was one of the best parts?
“Kelsey and Alex.”
He’s gotten better, Pam Ruehle said, and track’s played a big part in that.
“He has so much more self confidence,” she said. “All of the things that put him in sports where he’s with peers, and with peers who want to help him, that’s definitely helped immensely.”
He talks more.
He’s more social, seeks out friends and trades jokes.
He takes notes in classes instead of simply showing up, approaches teachers with questions by himself instead of with a school staff member and, at the state track meet, lines up and runs a race in front of thousands of fans and crosses the finish line into the arms of dear friends.
Considering it all, from the friends to the fans, from the track at state to the classroom in Steamboat, Pam Ruehle found herself overwhelmed.
"We’ve just been amazed,” she said. “It’s been fun to watch him grow in his running. It makes us get a little teary eyed.”
On cue, she wiped her eyes, and her son chimed in, chiding.
“You’re a big girl!”
“I think about where you came from,” she answered, turning to him, “and big girls do cry.”
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9