MANHATTAN — Cole Cameron is just like any other seventh grader.
He loves sports — football, baseball, fighting and wrestling, specifically — and he loves school.
“Science and social studies, math, and I love my mom and dad and I love my dog and I love my sisters,” he said.
And he loves to run.
Cole, who has Down syndrome, has competed at Special Olympics over the years. But now that he’s in junior high, he wanted to run with his classmates at Manhattan.
“I’ve known the Cameron family since I came to Manhattan, and they are truly amazing. When coach came and said, ‘Cole, wants to run. Would you want to run with him?’ I just thought, ‘Yes,’ immediately, ‘Of course,’” said Ruby Stenberg. “Cole’s a really great kid, and I want to help him be able to have this opportunity.”
Stenberg volunteers her time, along with Olleca and Madeline Severson, to run with Cole during practice. The three girls are active in other sports, but none of them compete in cross country.
“We do other sports outside of this, including lifting and basketball and stuff. We still have schoolwork, but I’d definitely fit this into my schedule just to help him out,” said Madeline Severson.
Despite their busy schedules, the girls alternate running with Cole. At least one will be at practice to run around town — to the “bank and back,” according to Cole.
If none of them can make a certain practice, Cole might run laps in front of the school, where coach John Sillitti can keep a watchful eye.
“We have a loop out right front that’s between 450 and 500 meters. I said, ‘We’re going to try to do six or seven laps without stopping to walk,’ so he said, ‘I’m going to do seven.’ He’s kind of firm like that,” Sillitti said. “He got to the end of six, we’re like, ‘OK, Cole, one more.’ And then he did the seven, then he got there and just kept going, and he came in, just big smile, ‘I did eight.’”
“He does seem really competitive to me, and he doesn’t let anything hold him back,” Olleca Severson said. “If a high schooler runs past us, he picks up his speed, and he’ll be always chasing somebody. He’s always chasing, he’s always trying to get faster, and I think that’s amazing.”
And that competitive nature was front and center a couple weeks ago. The Tigers were competing at the Belgrade Invitational at Gallatin County Regional Park, which features a creek at the bottom of a hill. Prior to the race, Cole told his coaches he wouldn’t finish if he got wet.
Turns out, Cole is more hard-nosed and competitive than even he thought.
“I fell, I go down a creek and I slipped, and it was kind of deep, and I keep running out there, and I passed someone,” Cole said.
He actually passed two competitors during that race, showing that his hard work is already paying early dividends — even if it’s not always hard work.
“He always likes to try and talk and then he gets side cramps and he’s all, ‘My side hurts.’ I was like, ‘Well, stop talking,’” Stenberg said. “But he’s super great, really happy kid all the time, just great personality to be around.”
And while they’ve only been practicing for a couple weeks, the girls benefit just as much — or more — as Cole from their runs.
“He’s so happy all the time, whenever I’m around him anyway,” Olleca Severson said. “He’s just ready to go. Being able to see him smiling all the time, it’s really the highlight of my day.”