Mike Fortner stood near the finish line at the McQuaid Invitational, waiting just like all those other parents. A junior-varsity swimming coach for Fairport (N.Y.) High School the past 20 years, his coaching duties prevented him from making it to earlier races to watch his son, Luke, run in his first cross country season.
As Luke neared the finish Sept. 28, the cheers grew louder at Genesee Valley Park. Next to Mike were two girls from Mercy High School. "They had no idea I was his Dad," Mike recalls, "and they're watching Luke and almost crying."
"This," one of the girls said, "is the coolest thing I've seen all day."
Here was Luke Fortner, about to finish last out of 299 runners, and that mattered to absolutely no one. The 13-year-old clutched a two-foot tether that his coach, Jackie McAlpin, leads him with during every race and Fortner, who is legally blind, ran strong to the end.
"Kind of moving," says Mike.
"I can confirm," admits his wife, Cindy, with a smile, "there were tears."
Luke Fortner — tether, sunglasses, smile and all — has been motivating others all season. A twin who arrived 14 weeks early, the seventh-grader was born with Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP). He is light sensitive, but can make out only shapes and shadows. He has what's called "navigational vision," says Cindy, who like Mike is a middle school teacher in Fairport. Last summer, Luke expressed an interest in running, so Mike Fortner asked athletic director Jim Zumbo in early August if the modified squad would be a possibility for his son.
"As unique as this is, we've tried to keep it as normal as possible," says Zumbo, who calls this one of the most rewarding things he has seen in 30 years in education. "That's what Luke has been looking for, to be like every other kid, and that's what Cindy and Mike have wanted for him every day of his life. We're all very proud of him."
From teammates to opposing runners, parents and fans, Luke turns heads, and it's not about winning. It's about trying and doing your best. Luke is always closer to last place, covering two-mile races in about 26 minutes, but he draws cheers as if he were finishing first.
"It's inspiring," says Amity Engleson, whose daughter, Cassidy, is an eighth-grader on the Fairport team. "Every kid can look at him and can't say, 'I can't do it,' because (he's showing) there's no limit to what you can do. I cry almost every time he crosses the finish line. To see all the other teams cheering for him, it's really uplifting."
Instead of being born on their due date in 2000, Columbus Day (Oct. 12) Cindy and Mike's twin boys — Luke and Jack — arrived on an earlier holiday, the Fourth of July. Mike remembers one doctor immediately telling the new parents of 26-week infants, "I'm not going to lead you down a garden path, this is going to be a tough road."
Luke was a little bigger than Jack — around 2 pounds — but while Jack showed steady progress, Luke lagged. In early September, doctors at Strong Memorial's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit began to see eye issues. "The hope is the retina will develop outside the (mother's) uterus like it normally would, but Luke had some erratic blood vessel growth," Cindy says.
Stevie Wonder is probably the most famous person born with ROP, where the retina is detached from the eye. Laser surgery at Strong didn't help for Luke, so their doctor suggested Dr. Michael Trese of Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.
So, Cindy, Luke and a medical team flew to Michigan, not far from where she grew up in suburban Detroit and just down the street from her aunt. Mike drove there because he'd need to stay for three more weeks as Luke — just 3 months old and weighing four pounds — was monitored.
The fear: Luke would be blind. The hope: light perception. "We got so much more," Mike says.
It was difficult to know if the vitrectomy (attaching the retina) was successful. Such is the case with newborns, who can't tell you what they see. Meanwhile, Jack was discharged from the hospital on Oct. 15, the day before Luke's second eye surgery, so Cindy had to get home for that.
After returning to Strong, Luke finally came home Nov. 15, but the Fortners made the six-hour drive to Michigan every few months for the next two years for check-ups. Some doctor visits lasted 15 minutes.
Finding his way
From family and friends, the Fortners had plenty of support with the twins finally home. Mike grew up in Fairport. Cindy's parents moved to the Buffalo area when she was in high school. Luke needed to sleep with the lights on so his nerves and brain would be stimulated as much as possible.
The twins started pre-school at 3, did an extra year of that and then kindergarten at age 6. Fortunately, that was at Brooks Hill Elementary, where Cindy and Mike both taught.
"I remember thinking: For 11 years, I've taught numerous children to read, how am I going to do that with a child of my own that might not be able to see?" Cindy remembers. "It was just a question that hung there for me."
It took support from several angles. Luke started reading Braille in second grade through BOCES because Fairport's special education department doesn't handle vision. Deborah Smith worked with Luke from age 3 to 11.
"It was fine," Luke says of her help.
Cindy interjects, "She made you work hard."
Cindy says then-principal Mary Cardona, now Fairport's school board president, also was particularly supportive. "She really wanted to help," Cindy says.
But the Fortners, who met on the first day of new teacher training in 1989, say they don't think their child received special treatment because they worked for the school district. They also say Luke's pediatrician, Julie Lenhard of Perinton Pediatrics, has been an important advocate for him.
Part of the team
When it's not crowded with students, Luke can walk from classroom to classroom on his own. When hallways are full, though, like most days, he uses a cane or his "stick," as he calls it. His brother has been in mainstream classrooms for a while and is flourishing.
"A typical seventh-grader," Cindy says.
While Jack doesn't play sports, he likes science, is in a musical and Boy Scouts and plays the piano. He raised $734 for Camp Abilities, a one-week developmental sports camp in Brockport for teens who are visually impaired or deaf, by collecting cans and returning them for deposits. Luke has attended Camp Abilities for three years.
"I think it's just a great example for the community, especially to bring awareness to disabilities, that people with disabilities can do things," Jack proudly says of his brother running cross country.
When Zumbo approached Charlie Lowe, Fairport's modified cross country coach, about Fortner, Lowe was all for it. After nearly 30 years coaching, this was something different, something from which he could learn.
"To see him fight through these races, I feel for him because it's hard," says Lowe, 56. "Getting any sort of mileage in for him, takes time. But he accepts the challenge with so much dignity."
Luke's peers have welcomed and helped him, too, Lowe says.
"The kids have shown as much, if not more, camaraderie with Luke, so I've got to think it will make them more comfortable around people with disabilities," he says. "People have really embraced and are proud of Luke and Jackie."
At practice and races, McAlpin's eyes become Luke's. The 28-year-old Fairport teacher helps him with his running, especially warning him about changes in the terrain, but she also describes their surroundings.
If they're passing a soccer game or nearby pond, she tells him. If the color of the leaves on a trail are brilliant, she relays that, too. "I want to give him the whole experience that his other teammates get," the Webster native says.
Luke runs with a short stride, but Lowe thinks that's a "correction over being worried he'll fall." Yet, Luke has fallen just once in a race and that's because leaves were covering a root, says McAlpin, who made his tether out of T-shirts.
"It is comfortable and soft to hold on to and I can wash it easily," says McAlpin, whose physical education degree includes a concentration in Adapted P.E.
McAlpin's role in Luke's development — his parents say being part of a team has boosted his self-confidence — has been critical. "They're very good together," Zumbo says. "From a teacher, to a coach and just her personality, Jackie is just the perfect match."
"She is," Cindy Fortner says, "a blessing."
McAplin has been impressed with the sportsmanship shown by area runners. Even though they don't know Luke's name, they yell, "Yeah, Fairport!" to encourage him. Section V doesn't keep participation records on athletes with disabilities, but Lowe says he has never seen a visually impaired runner in his 30 years coaching in Monroe County.
"I'm really hoping that as more and more people see Luke and what he's doing they'll want to advocate for (other) kids to get involved in team sports," McAlpin says.
Fairport doesn't have modified indoor track, so Luke will take the winter off and may run in the spring. He says he's having fun, and as long as that continues, he'll keep running. In Saturday's final race this season, he ran a personal best (24 minutes, 9 seconds).
"He's out there getting better every day, which is the same message I put to my swimmers all the time," Mike Fortner says. "That's what matters."
Jeff DiVeronica also writes for the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat & Chronicle.