As Xavier Prep cross country coach Aron Lyons stands in front of 49 of the valley’s fastest male runners before the second Desert Valley League cross country meet of the year, Shadow Hills (Calif.) senior Luis Fernandez looks off to the side.
Lyons preps the varsity runners on the course, instructs them to take two giant steps back from the line and sends out a shrill “BEEP” that will be used as the race’s starting signal.
With every other runner looking ahead with a focused stare or giving one last check of their shoes, Fernandez has his eyes locked on a member of his extended “team.”
Because when Lyons shrieks and the race officially begins, Fernandez will already be a fraction of a second behind the rest of the field until someone can sign to him from the sidelines and signal that the race has begun.
For just a moment, the elite distance runner, who is deaf, falls a half-step behind and is engulfed by the sea of runners. But it doesn’t take the senior long to catch back up and blend in with the rest of the pack.
If you missed that small moment, you wouldn’t recognize Fernandez as anything more than a talented runner with college aspirations and an outside chance to win the league’s championship meet Wednesday afternoon at Demuth Park in Palm Springs. In a way, the senior loves that inclusion as being one of the guys on the Knights’ squad, but in the future, he hopes he can use his disability to inspire younger runners with the same dreams he had growing up.
“He wants to eventually be a cross country coach,” Fernandez’s mother, Fabiola, said. “He wants to enjoy running in college, but hopefully become a coach to help out kids who are just like him and say ‘If I did it, you can do it too.’ ”
Fernandez needed mentors in his own life to help him and his parents to finally realize the talent he’d been hiding. Fabiola remembers even in elementary school when her son’s gym teacher remarked at how fast he could run the mile.
But even heading into high school, Fernandez pursued baseball, soccer and football, although his running background still popped up from time-to-time. Shadow Hills track and cross country coach Richie DeTamble remembers during the spring of Fernandez’s freshman year when Luis came out for the track team, but didn’t last long.
“There was something in him. He had a lot of strength, and he was good, but the practices were too much for him at the time,” he said.
Instead, Fernandez went out for baseball that freshman spring. But a year later, he was back at DeTamble’s opening season workouts, thinking he was going to be a sprinter. Eventually, his distance runner talents shone through.
But that doesn’t mean Fernandez felt at ease right away. His hearing is at a level where he can somewhat hear someone’s raised voice if they’re close to him. Making eye contact so that he can read the speaker’s lips helps tremendously. But though he can hear the roar of a crowd, it’s tough for Fernandez to make sense of any of it.
As DeTamble explains, to Fernandez, the home stretch at a track meet or the throng of people around the finish line of a cross country meet sound like indistinct mumbling – imagine how your ears feel at high elevations before they’ve normalized, but much worse.
That means that sometimes, at least early on, Fernandez would go into races, especially in track and field, uncertain of what he was actually doing. DeTamble remembers multiples instances when he’d see his star distance runner start to pick up the pace on the third lap of the mile – a four-lap race – and by the time his coach could sprint across the field and grab Fernandez’s attention by waving his arms and motioning him to slow down, he was already gassed, still with one lap remaining.
At cross country meets with the runners sometimes tracing an entire school complex, Fernandez’s family and DeTamble have worked out a plan to stage people throughout the course to communicate with Luis, see how he’s feeling and remind him where to start picking up the pace toward the end.
“I can yell to anyone else from across the stadium, and they can hear me,” the coach said. “Luis can’t. I either have to wait for him to come around or go run over.
“At the cross country meets, when he has 800 meters to go, it’s not just a simple ‘Come on, Luis!’ I’ve got to waive my arms in a big circle and exaggerate. He knows if I’m doing this, it’s go time.”
Off the course, though, Fernandez has eased into just one of the guys. DeTamble doesn’t ever hesitate to goad his runners, whether it’s about checking on their grades or the weekend’s fantasy football developments. And Luis gets the same attention from him and the rest of his teammates.
The senior does still speak audibly – not all deaf people do – and though it is difficult to understand in first meeting him, his coaches and teammates have no trouble at all. It’s a testament to how much they care about making him feel right at home and the effort they’ve put in.
When the team arrives at the track after school, Luis receives a variety of remarks – “Hey, Luis”, “What’s up, Luis?” as well as high-fives. Fernandez is particularly good friends with fellow speedy senior Isaiah Gonzalez, who won the second DVL meet of the season after Fernandez took second place in the opener.
“I like running with Isaiah because we can both pass the other team,” he signs.
The relationships Fernandez has been able to build, both on the team and around the school, may be what his mother is most proud of. She’s frequently on the Shadow Hills High School campus for meetings with her son’s teachers or to watch him compete, and she said she’s amazed at the kindness her son is given, despite his disability.
“The kids and the teachers, they respect each other. Since Luis has gone there, I haven’t seen anyone making fun of him or ignoring him because they can’t understand him or anything,” his mother said. “Sometimes when I have meetings, I go and see him, and he’s got lots of friends, and that makes me very happy.
“No one seems to say ‘Let’s not talk to him because he’s deaf.’ ”
This season, Fernandez became the third male Knights runner to ever break the 16-minute mark in a five-kilometer meet, trailing Gonzalez, who set the school record at 15:21. Fernandez’s time of 15:51 that he ran at the Beaumont Invitational to kick off this season is his personal best, improving upon his junior year personal record of 16:24. That mark from Beaumont is also the seventh-fastest time anyone in the DVL has run in any meet this season.
In hopes of continuing his running career, his mother said Fernandez plans on attending College of the Desert next school year, a situation that would be the best of both worlds and allow him to continue living at home while going to school and running on the Roadrunners’ cross country team. DeTamble said he’s gotten inquiries from bigger college programs about Fernandez’s interest, too, but noted leaving home would mean he would need extra support.
Wherever he ends up during his college years, his mother hopes her son pursues his dream of becoming a coach. She said she thinks his determination he’s shown growing up could do nothing but help out other teenage kids who may, like a young Luis, need some help breaking out of their shell.
“Nothing really bothers him, to tell you the truth,” she said. “He does what he puts his mind to and puts a lot of heart into it, even though it’s hard. Nothing stands in his way or holds him back. He’ll go for it and do whatever he has to.”