Williams: Cerebral palsy hasn't stopped Justin Gallegos

As a high school cross country and track coach, Darren James likes to tell his athletes that running is a metaphor for life.

James says if they can tune out that inner voice screaming for them to quit when things get difficult, or if they can get back up when they fall or shake off a bad race, they’ll forge a strength that will serve them the rest of their lives.

Yet, as a teacher, James says he’s no match for Justin Gallegos.

Justin, a 17-year-old senior distance runner for James at Hart High School in Santa Clarita, California, has cerebral palsy. His gait isn’t smooth. His motion isn’t efficient. He doesn’t have the muscle coordination most people take for granted. Even when he’s running at top speed, Justin is no match for his teammates or most of his opponents. Many times, he’s finished last. Nothing comes easy.

Yet he’s worked hard and improved consistently since Day 1 as a freshman. And that, says James, is why he’s such a wonderful teacher.

“He can sit there in front of the team and talk about the dedication you have to put in and how you fight when it gets difficult and all of those things, and when he says it, it’s like a thunderbolt strike,” says James. “It’s a lot more powerful than when you hear it from someone like me. I think the kids respond to that.

“When he’s out there, I think it’s crystal clear to them what that endeavor is, what he’s bringing to the table, what he’s doing, because they see it and they hear it every single day.”

Which is why, in many races, Justin’s teammates, coaches, parents, classmates and even opponents line the race route as he approaches the finish line to cheer and shout their encouragement.

“I think that could be misinterpreted why people run out there and do that,” says James. “It’s definitely his influence and the inspiration he brings.”

It’s not out of pity for a runner with no hope of winning. It’s out of respect for one with uncommon desire.

Falling and getting back up

Justin wanted to do something athletic and be part of a team in high school. He thought about going out for football as a freshman, but his father, Brent, counseled him to try cross country.

“I don’t like to discourage him or tell him things that he can’t do,” says Brent. “I was just reluctant obviously (and said), ‘As your father I’m concerned you’re going to get hurt.'”

So the two talked to James and fellow cross country coach Larry David. Brent told them Justin had done a lot of work on the treadmill and assured them his son could run the three miles required in a cross country race, and that he would work hard. Both coaches encouraged Justin to come out.