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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Runner refuses to let handicap stop him

Friday, January 2, 2004

(Photo)
GIFT: Ben Comen, middle, and his twin, Alex, present President George W. Bush with a T.L. Hanna sweatshirt at GSP International Airport.
Staff Writer

Struggles:

It looks like the calvary coming over the hill, but it's not; it's Ben Comen and his teammates who have rejoined the race to escort their comrade over the finish line in last place once again.

He is always the last runner but spectators scream and cheer as if Ben just took first place in the 3.1-mile race, said Joan Comen, Ben's mother. Often tears stream down the faces in the crowd while his mother holds her breath as Ben stumbles before he falls. At times his head and knees are bleeding, but he always gets up and finishes the race. Quitting is not part of his vocabulary. He has heart, soul and determination.

Ben is an 11th-grader at T.L. Hanna High School in South Carolina where he runs cross country. His grandparents, Al and JoAnna Comen of Horseshoe Bend, said their grandson is not a typical runner -- Ben suffers from cerebral palsy.

Ben and his twin brother, Alex, were born 10 weeks premature. Both spent seven weeks in the hospital.

At birth Alex seemed to be more severely ill with lung problems. At six months their mother noticed developmental problems with both. The twins each received physical and occupational therapy. Alex blossomed with the therapy but Ben didn't.

Ben was 15 months old before doctors diagnosed him with his affliction, which was probably caused by a lack of oxygen to his brain during pregnancy, Mrs. Comen said.

The twins' mother is a speech therapist who faced another struggle when her brother became deaf at age 3. At the age of 39 her brother committed suicide. She said she knows tragedy and handicaps firsthand.

Determination:

Ben's condition seizes his muscle, contorts his body and distorts his balance. He drags his left side, and with his shuffling gait he struggles to lift his feet.

He said the support from his teammates, spectators, family, friends and coach is what keeps him going. "My goal is to cross the finish line no matter what. If I'm having a bad race I still keep going," he said.

Ben said even though he isn't competing for placement he races against the clock. He said his teammates are proud of him and that makes him feel good.

The only thought that enters Ben's head when he falls is to get up and keep going. He bangs his head, knees and shoulders but keeps moving.

"I hold my breath," Mrs. Comen said. She said she fears that one day her son will suffer with an injury that will keep him from getting up, and that would devastate him.

A camaraderie exists between his teammates that is witnessed in every competition as they rally and run the last portion of the race with him. They run to support him but they also guide him so he doesn't get lost when running on an unfamiliar course.

Ben has become a local hero in his hometown of Anderson. ABC and NBC networks along with local news stations have interviewed him. Ben said he was surprised over all the media hype because he considers himself just another cross country runner. He said his teammates work just as hard as he does; he doesn't think all the spotlight should be directed at him.

Inspiration:

His teammates run their fastest but then race back to his side as Ben tries to beat his personal time before he crosses the finish line. "It's heartwarming," said David Comen, Ben's father.

The tradition of finishing the race as a team started after his sister, Megan, 6 at the time, ran to join her brother and cross the finish line. Shortly after that his teammates started escorting him, and now runners from opposing teams are even joining Ben in the final laps.

"He gets a little skinned up. It's a really good race if he only falls once," Comen said.

Comen said his son told him, "I'm just a kid that likes to run." He said his son spends a lot of time running but he also has managed to stay focused on his academics.

Comen said his son plans to go to college and dreams of attending medical school at the University of South Carolina. He said if med school doesn't work out then Ben might work as a nurse or as a nutritionist. "He is pretty tenacious about going after things," he added.

Hanna's cross-county coach, Chuck Parker, said Ben is an inspiration to not only his teammates but to the spectators.

Ben's twin also runs cross country and his younger brother Chris is on the junior high team.

Support:

Mrs. Comen contacted Parker over three years ago to see if he would consider allowing her son to join the team.

Parker never hesitated, not even for a second. "He said, 'bring him on,'" Mrs. Comen said.

Four years ago Ben started running. By his second year he improved his time. By his third year he was running the race in 30 minutes and 3 seconds and made great strides. "It was an exciting year," Parker said. But then he required corrective surgery which set him back.

Parker said Ben underwent radical surgery last November in which doctors cut his left femur and rotated it 45 degrees to correct the inward twisting of his leg caused by his condition.

The surgery affected his running time because his recovery required him to learn to walk and run all over again. But it also enabled him to bend his knee.

"Ben is a regular guy on the team. Ben is Ben. We don't treat him any different than the rest of the kids from a coaching perspective," Parker said.

Ben has proven to other runners that he wants to perform to the best of his ability. He is always trying to get better and better, Parker added.

"I've bandaged every part of his body. He has never failed to finish a race no matter how badly hurt or bruised he is," Parker said as he fondly refers to Ben as "Crash."

Ben beat his own record since his surgery at the regional championship with a time of 38 minutes and 30 seconds. "Crews from networks had tears streaming down their faces when he broke his time," Parker recalled.

"I told him (Ben) that God does everything for a purpose. People are motivated and moved by him. He turned a disability into an ability," Parker said.

The support that he gets is contagious -- parents from opposing teams wait at the finish line to greet Ben.

Spirit:

Ben is an old soul in a young body who found a kindred spirit in his disabled next door neighbor, Miss Jessie, who is wheelchair bound. "I love being around her," Ben said.

Comen said Miss Jessie doesn't communicate well. He said lack of communication is frustrating to others but Ben never gets frustrated with her because of his compassion. He said he thinks compassion is what drives Ben toward geriatric medicine.

While most kids are playing video games Ben is busy helping build wheelchair ramps for Easter Seals. He also spends evenings volunteering at an assisted living home.

Media spotlight:

Ben's story gained national attention after Amy Cox, the mother of a runner at another school, witnessed Ben and was moved by him and his teammates. Cox e-mailed Sports Illustrated and Rick Reilly wrote a story. Profiles of Ben have been highlighted on NBC, ABC and other networks.

The Comen family met President Bush in Greenville Nov. 10. The president learned about Ben's disability from the media. Ben was impressed when his story gained the attention of the president. "It was quite an honor for all of us," Comen said.

Family:

Comen said Ben loves to visit Horseshoe Bend. He said he gets to fish, swim and go tubing. "He doesn't set any speed records, but he has fun and enjoys spending time with his grandparents," he said.

His grandfather said Ben runs against himself. He said his grandson has determination and strives to overcome his disability. When Ben and the others come to visit, "We try not to overemphasize things and treat him as a regular kid," he said.

School:

Hanna High is also home to a nationally acclaimed and mentally challenged man known to the world as Radio, who has been the football team's assistant for over 30 years. He is still a student at the school, said Parker.

James "Radio" Kennedy walked on the football field in the mid-1960s and has been a part of the school ever since, Parker said. He showed up with a transistor radio which seemed never to leave his ear so he was nicknamed "Radio" by the coaches and players. He too is an 11th-grader and will continue to remain in that grade so he doesn't have to graduate. Radio is the hero of a movie which opened nationwide in October.

Radio helps with the track team and he attends the home cross country meets. Parker said Radio gets excited and sometimes runs in front of the other runners because he doesn't understand boundaries.

"We have great kids at Hanna, and Anderson is a great town," Parker said.

With all the media attention, Parker said he predicts more kids with disabilities will join sports.

The halls of T.L. Hanna echo with the legacies Ben and Radio have left behind. Who knows who the next lost soul will be whom Hanna embraces?

Maybe students who need a lesson on compassion should head to Hanna. Perhaps Ben's and Radio's stories will tug at their heartstrings. Compassion and love is plentiful in the hallways, Parker said.



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