UNION TOWNSHIP – While many of the runners at a cross country meet can be found in a tent with headphones, Aaron Westendorf is the curious sort who may wander out into the drying green grass to find his next new acquaintance.
There is no pre-race preservation of energy from the Glen Este High School freshman, who joined the team for the fall menu of races. Instead he has boundless energy that needs to be focused and channeled.
Aaron Westerndorf has Down Syndrome and may be the most cheerful face you’ll find in a sport that can be grueling.
It began with his parents coming to Glen Este cross country coach Ray Prueitt and asking if he could be involved. The Trojans coach agreed after letting Aaron try a few practices.
“We were a little bit concerned if he would get lost on the course,” Prueitt said. “I contacted the head of officials for OHSAA. There’s a rule in place that he’s allowed to have someone with him to keep him on course and keep him from getting lost.”
Enter sisters Olivia and Chloe Reynolds, a junior and sophomore. Olivia is one of Prueitt’s few running girls and Chloe runs track, but not cross country.
Most meets, Olivia Reynolds runs the girls race, then changes clothes, gets a drink and hops right back on the course with her 15-year-old teammate.
“I recover pretty fast, so it’s fairly easy for me,” Olivia Reynolds said. “Aaron’s not as fast, so it’s like a cool down.”
On days when Olivia’s energy is zapped. Chloe Reynolds covers the course with Aaron. When Olivia does double duty, Chloe is on the clock in between events.
“While she runs, I help Aaron warm up and stuff,” Chloe Reynolds.
Both are heavily involved in the process and enjoy watching Aaron run into the finish chute to the loud ovation from total strangers.
“By the time he gets there, the other kids and other parents and coaches cheer him on,” Prueitt said. “Our guys are probably the loudest, jogging along and encouraging him the last half-mile or so.”
Added Olivia Reynolds: “I always like seeing the people cheering on Aaron even though they don’t know who he is. I always let Aaron finish the race by himself the last 100 yards.”
Aaron does have to take occasional walking breaks, but completes every race and enjoys the limelight. His time is irrelevant as Glen Este doesn’t have enough runners to compete as a team. The Trojan boys and girls compete individually.
Aaron is playful and enjoys the experience, including the bus rides. As he answers questions, he teases Olivia Reynolds for napping on the team bus.
“These ladies say, ‘Aaron, you’re going slow!’” Aaron said as he continually jokes with his running entourage. “They help me out. If I run away, these two have to come get me.”
Olivia Reynolds has worked at Stepping Stones for five years and enjoys working with Aaron. With a mischievous grin, he admits her influence has been good.
“She helps me to be calm, because I hate the sounds and I run away a lot,” Westerndorf said. “My hobby is to run away.”
Now, Aaron cheers the nearby marching band and claims to like the tuba. Despite just finishing a run, he offers to do push-ups and performs a few cartwheels on the parking lot pavement.
Everyone is his friend, particularly the Reynolds sisters.
“This is my date for Homecoming,” Aaron says as he points toward Chloe Reynolds. “This is my date and this is my next date (pointing toward Olivia).”