Jade Suarez runs past her obstacles

The Special Olympics is a goal for Lawrence Middle School student

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Nearly six years after Jade Suarez suffered a prenatal stroke, she was watching the 2012 Summer Olympics on television. Though she watched a majority of the events, her mother, Stephanie Suarez, said Jade’s focus was on the runners. “She tells me, ‘Mommy, I like the runners,’” Stephanie recalled.

Now Jade, who will turn 12 on Dec. 1, is a runner. The Lawrence Middle School seventh-grader was born with a lesion on the front part of her brain that resulted in epilepsy, which causes seizures. The right side of her body is much weaker than the left, and she has a slight facial droop on her right side. Despite these obstacles, which slowed her physical and mental development, she ran in all eight meets of the middle school cross-country season this year — her first in the sport — and progressed from running a half-mile at the beginning of her training to the top race distance of 2 miles at the end of the season.

“I learned that I can run fast,” said Jade, who has played soccer in a league that has a special-needs team, as well as basketball, volleyball and baseball in gym. She also sang in the chorus in last school year’s middle school production of “The Wizard of Oz.”

It takes a team

Like the sports Jade takes part in, it has been a team effort. After she told her classroom teacher, Kellyanne Berry, that she wanted to run cross-country, the middle school and district mobilized to help.

“I’m Jade’s physical education teacher, and I do know that Jade has special needs, and that requires some special accommodations,” said Pat McQuillan, the middle school’s phys. ed. coordinator. “I went to talk to her family about this.” Joining in the effort was a team of staff, including LMS Principal Willis Perry, Athletic Director Michael Gordon, psychologist Dr. Karen Mackler and Superintendent Dr. Ann Pedersen. “We got the accommodations in place for Jade to participate,” McQuillan said.

McQuillan, who coaches the LMS cross-country team, enlisted his sister-in-law and fellow middle school phys. ed. teacher, Cheri Donnelly-McQuillan, who ran cross-country at Plainedge High School and LIU Post, to run with Jade, even during races. “Jade became part of the team and the team fully accepted her as a regular team member,” Donnelly-McQuillan said, “and she made all kinds of friendships she would have never made before.”

Because of her health issues, Jade had Donnelly-McQuillan as a companion runner, and school nurse Susan Brooks attended each meet, because the medication Jade needs when she has a seizure must be delivered immediately by a trained medical professional. Donnelly-McQuillan ran with her cell phone in case of an emergency.

To say that running made Jade happy would be an understatement. “After the first race, she had a smile from ear to ear,” McQuillan said.

“Her mother was crying and her father was excited,” Donnelly-McQuillan added. “A lot of runners finished after her.” When reminded of that first meet, at Oceanside Park on Sept. 27, Jade beamed.

A tough transition

Learning to run cross-country and building her stamina didn’t come easily for her. “The transition from 1.5 miles to 2 miles was difficult for her at first,” Donnelly-McQuillan said. “At Baldwin Park there are hills, and the hills were harder. By the end of the season, there was a progression.” Her best time for 1.5 miles was 15 minutes, 59 seconds, 67th of 84 runners, at Valley Stream State Park on Oct. 22. For 2 miles, it was 21:14, good for 50th place out of 65 competitors at Oceanside on Oct. 30.

After every meet, the LMS coaches awarded the Golden Sneaker Award to two team members who “demonstrate an outstanding effort and sportsmanship during a race.” On Oct. 15, Jade and Jason Collado were awarded the sneaker, which was spray-painted gold. “It was good,” Jade said of running with her peers.

“We have a fair amount of people who come out for our team that after two days they are no longer with us,” McQuillan said. “So, under the best of circumstances, a lot of people find that this is not for them and they can’t handle this. For Jade to come out every day and to show the progression she did was nothing short of amazing.”

Both coaches noted that being part of the team — from doing the warmup stretching exercises to cheering for her team (as well as opponents) — has accelerated Jade’s maturation and socialization at the same time that her accomplishments pushed her and her teammates to improve. “It was a team effort, and there was compassion behind it all,” her mother said. “No one gave up on her, no one put her down, and no one expected more than she could give.”

Jade receives just as much support at home as she does at school. When Stephanie married Alex Quezada eight years ago, Jade joined Alex’s daughter, Hailey, 15, who attends Lawrence High School and is a cheerleader. Eight months ago, Lily Quezada was born. The family lives in Inwood.

Three years ago, Jade had surgery on her right Achilles’ tendon, and her leg was in a brace. She did leg lifts to regain strength in the leg. Stephanie said that running has further strengthened the leg. “When she won the Golden Sneaker we were so proud — we were ecstatic,” Stephanie said. “It’s just really one of those moments: This is my kid.”

Jade said she wants to run track in the spring and continue with cross-country next year. Remembering 2012, when her daughter watched the Olympic runners, Stephanie said, “I knew she had it in her all along. When she started running, she said to Coach Donnelly that one day she wants to do it in the Special Olympics.”