Perhaps unbeknownst to Amelio Chio, a lion sits behind him.
Flanked by a parent on either side in the Cathedral City cross country team runners’ room, the mascot lion behind Amelio is but a large color cut-out. But its eyes, marbled and aglow, do seem eerily alive, just as its patterned fur appears taut and vibrant.
Lanky, lean and seeking volume in his 5-foot-10 frame, beyond the hoodie in which he swims, freshman Amelio wears his own stripes.
In the summer of 2014, in a household accident, Amelio caught fire, resulting in third and fourth-degree burns suffered across the right side of body, into his armpit and along his back.
“Amelio and his brother were messing around in the kitchen, basically; the stove was on and his shirt caught fire. Stupid, messing around,” remembers his mother, Raquel Chio. “He tried to do the ‘Stop Droll and Roll,’ but I think he was already starting to be engulfed on the side. If you looked at our carpet, there was this big, black spot. Our daughter ended up getting a big bucket of water and pouring it on him.”
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At the time, Raquel was sitting vigil for her 84-year-old father in Orange County while Amelio’s father, Enrique, was working his former job as a live-in caregiver.
“I just had this gut-feeling that something was going to happen,” Enrique recalls of a premonition. “Before I left, I told his oldest sister, ‘Look, make sure he doesn’t go near the stove, fire, anything of that sort.’ I specifically said that. I just had this bad feeling.”
As the T-shirt Amelio was wearing had an especially-flammable decal which seemingly augmented the flames, the resulting injuries required ambulance transit to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, the nearest burn unit.
“When they first sent me the pictures, I thought, ‘Alright, it’s second-degree burns at the worst; it’s OK,'” says Enrique. “But as we soon found out, the skin continues to burn.”
The Chio parents rushed to meet their son at the hospital.
“After he was admitted, they wouldn’t let me in the room where he had to be scrubbed,” pauses Raquel. “They closed the door and all I could hear was Amelio screaming.”
The pain would endure, just as Amelio would endure the pain. He’d spend nearly a month in the hospital and eventually undergo two skin graft surgeries, taking skin from his thigh.
The procedures were but a part of Amelio’s recovery. During dressing changes at home, even a waft of cool air proved excruciating.
“Which, for me, was more agonizing than I could have ever imagined. There was a portion of his back that they did not skin graft, that they were hoping would heal,” says Raquel of a surgery that would soon be performed. “When we’d do the dressing changes, he’d be on his knees begging for his life. He’d literally fall to his knees and say, ‘Mommy, please, I’ll be good.’ Amelio described it to me that it felt like a million knives.”
Amelio’s scars ran from skin to schedule. He’d be home-schooled for months before eventually being able to return to Nellie Coffman Middle School on a part-time basis. But the boy’s pain was not limited to the physical extent. Given the accidental nature of his injuries, Amelio was internally working to bandage his shame.
“I think it’s fair that the reason he didn’t want to discuss it sometimes was because of how he caught on fire,” says Enrique.
Admits the son:
“I guess I didn’t want to really face it, but I knew it happened, so I had to face it either way,” Amelio says.
All told, the recovery put Amelio in bed for the better part of two years.
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“I’d have to lay in bed all day, but I didn’t want to do that,” says Amelio. “A lot of times I wanted to go out, but I wouldn’t be able to. I was in a lot of pain.”
The Chio’s are spiritual people. They are also strong people. And they believe such fortitude is weaved deep through their DNA.
According to Raquel, her late father was the world’s longest-living quadriplegic, a condition suffered while in the U.S. Army. Amelio was released from the hospital in time to attend his grandfather’s funeral. In the two-plus years since, he’s felt that the spirit of his grandfather came to him and gave him strength in his recovery.
This summer past, such mettle manifested in Amelio’s surprising, if not sudden desire to run cross country at Cathedral City.
“At first I said, ‘No,’ because this was the first time I’ve even let him be out in the sun,” recalls Raquel, citing the adverse effects of sun on her son’s skin. “It’s the summertime, its 120 degrees, he’s outside and my child takes his shirt off to run. It wasn’t OK for me; I was terrified that he would pass out or something along those lines. He was not conditioned; he’d been in bed for almost two years. Cross country was not the sport I would’ve chosen for him, but he wanted it so much.”
The Chio makeup is not limited to strength and desire alone, however. They are further coursed with runners’ blood.
Enrique Chio ran cross country in college and competed in the Olympic marathon trials in 1988. And while the father never placed any pressure on the son to follow in his sneaker steps, he was in favor of the boy’s wanting.
“Mentally, he’s a tough kid. Even before this happened, Amelio was a kid with this determination,” says Enrique who now volunteers and runs with the Lions. “And I just thought that, of all things he wants to do, this is great. Because it doesn’t require anything more than you and the earth that you run on. And I thought it would be great to further develop confidence and self-esteem, and also socially and the physical aspects.”
Despite the hunger to run, Amelio’s atrophied body revealed itself in the early going.
“I remember the first time I met him, I was like, ‘Oh shoot, will this kid even be able to finish a workout? Will he be able to survive the season?'” recalls David Gonzalez, head cross country coach at Cathedral City. “And I didn’t know he’d been through this trauma until he took his shirt off one day.”
A disrobe of Amelio’s hoodie indeed reveals both a toughness and a pause. The scars aren’t subtle. But neither is Amelio Chio’s endurance.
“Runners, probably to a significant degree, are people that are willing to postpone gratification,” says Gonzalez. “Runners know that, to be really good, they have to endure a lot of hardship. Distance runners understand that they’re working toward long-term goals.”
As the season progressed through autumn, Amelio became visibly stronger. And when a varsity CC runner went down with injury, he was the first to be called up from J.V.
“I remember talking to his dad and telling him that Chio’s the one guy, the one freshman, that if I put him in a varsity race, he’s going to meet the challenge,” Gonzalez says. “And he’s absolutely done that.”
Says Amelio: “Running as a passion . . . I always try more and more. To be in bed for almost two years and to start running out of nowhere, I feel like it’s a good accomplishment.”
The family and coach stand in concert, briefly discuss the logistic of the following day’s meet and exit the runner’s room, one by one. The room goes dark, but the lion’s eyes remain alight, watching the young runner go, silently roaring the difference between scars and stripes.