Kayleigh Williamson made history in 2017, when she became the first person with Down syndrome to run in – and complete – the Austin Half Marathon. Since then she’s finished 12 more half marathons, numerous races at other distances, and is training for her first marathon in 2022.
She’s written a children’s book, It’s Cool To Be Me, dedicated to people with Alzheimer’s, which her late grandmother suffered from and which often occurs in people with Down syndrome. Her running journey is inspiring proof of what grit and heart can accomplish.
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“I had taken her to a doctor at 215 pounds. He looked at her and he told me,‘this, it’s not gonna end well.’”
Kayleigh was in her early 20s when her grandmother had her second stroke and soon after was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Her mother, Sandy, began researching the disease and discovered that the chance of somebody with Down syndrome developing Alzheimer’s is “astronomically higher” than it is for other people. Kayleigh consumed a lot of fast food, processed food, and soda, and weighed 215 pounds. She had developed autoimmune disorders, including Graves’ disease, and Sandy knew that she had to do something to help her daughter.
“I expected some type of rejection. And the running community, we got total acceptance and 80 pounds came off of her body and every one of her autoimmune disorders went into remission. And today I see how healthy she is.”
Sandy initially feared that Kayleigh wouldn’t be accepted by the running community, but they embraced her. And even though she began running because of Sandy’s encouragement, it’s her own commitment that takes Kayleigh to the finish line. “I tell her she can stop if she needs to stop,” Sandy says. “ She never does. And that’s the part that’s kind of humbling to me whether we’re training or we’re in the middle of a race because she’s got this determination that she just doesn’t stop.”
“You have to get to the point you don’t care what the rest of the world thinks.”
The opinion of others bothered Sandy more than it did Kayleigh. She remembers a race where they were in last place. She grabbed Kayleigh’s hand to get her to run faster, and Kayleigh jerked her hand back. At that point, Sandy realized, “It’s more important for her to finish the race than what anyone else thinks about where we are in the race. And I think that’s kind of the same for life.”
“If you pick up your toys and go home, you don’t influence change.”
That isn’t to say that disregarding others’ opinions is easy. Sandy recalls a race where people were openly staring and taking pictures, and she resolved that they would never go back there. But then she realized that the situation would never improve if they just walked away, so, she says, “We have specifically decided that we’re going back and we’re doing those races over again until we impact that change.”
“I think anytime you’re told that your child is uniquely different in any way, you feel this need to protect them to the point that you think you’re fixing it. And really it was the realization that she didn’t need fixing.”
When Kayleigh was born, Sandy was told that she should put her in an institution. Now she’s proud that her daughter can stand on her own two feet. She’s realized that “She doesn’t need me protecting her; a lot of times she needs me to get out of the way.”
Sandy raised Kayleigh to give everything her best shot. She’s done that, and succeeded.
“Don’t let somebody else tell you what you can and cannot do. Get out there and try it, and if the first time you try it and you don’t succeed, but you know in your heart of hearts you can still do it, get up there and do it again as many times as you need to get back up.”
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“Thank you” to Kayleigh and Sandy. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the show.