One by one, the athletes who make up Kayleigh’s Club walked onto the Austin High School track with their family members in tow on Sunday afternoon, ready to run and move together. Everyone gets a hug when they arrive, it’s tradition.

The day’s workout is six to eight laps around the track—some are sprinting the straightaways and walking the curves while others run the entire distance. But this is more than just a few laps around the track, it’s an opportunity for athletes with special needs to feel empowered and be part of a larger running community in Austin.

“When you show them that they are so much more than what the expectations have been, you see them create these wings and they just take off,” said Kayleigh Williamson’s (the club’s namesake) mother.

Williamson’s wings took off at the 2017 Austin Half Marathon when she became the first person with Down syndrome to complete the race. She danced across the finish line in a time of 6:22:56.

Her historic accomplishment caught the attention of several international news outlets. In response to the momentum generated by Williamson’s success, her mother and Dr. Kimberly Davis of Austin-based running healthcare team RunLab decided to create a running group dedicated to encouraging more individuals with special needs to lead healthy lifestyles. In the spring of 2017, Kayleigh’s Club was formed.

The club meets every Saturday and Sunday for a group workout that includes volunteers and entire families who come to assist and enjoy the time together. The group is sponsored by RunLab and operates as a nonprofit organization. RunLab helped contribute to Williamson’s personal running success by providing gait training, physical therapy and individualized running assessments. Many athletes who participate in the club have also enjoyed increased running benefits from the healthcare team’s services.

Photo Credit: Taylor Dutch
Photo Credit: Taylor Dutch

In February 2018, Williamson returned to the Austin Half Marathon and improved on her previous time by one hour and 45 minutes. Two of her new teammates from Kayleigh’s Club also completed the race. “I love running because it gets me healthier,” Williamson said.

Williamson has enjoyed numerous health benefits from running. Since she and her mother started training for 5Ks years ago, she has lost almost 60 pounds, is no longer pre-diabetic, no longer suffers from sleep apnea, and her Graves’ disease is currently in remission. Another life-changing benefit for her and her teammates has been an increase in confidence.

“It seems to empower them. All of a sudden it switches something in them when they realize they can do something,” her mother shared. She believes part of the increased confidence comes from participating in events that include athletes of all abilities, not just individuals with special needs. Having the opportunity to finish a mainstream race brings them into the fold of the greater Austin running community. Athletes in the club are currently training for half marathons, 5Ks and local relay races.

Maxwell, one of the younger team members completed the workout on Sunday by running a consistent 10-minute mile pace throughout the eight-lap span around the track. The pace of the training run was a big improvement for the nine-year-old who completed the workout with a huge smile on his face and tons of encouragement.

For the athletes who are part of Kayleigh’s Club, running means so much more to them than just exercise. It’s a way for them to break a mold of expectations that have been set for them since birth.

“When our kids are born, the medical community tells us what to expect, the school board tells us what to expect, and we kind of raise them that way. We don’t raise them as individuals, we raise them according to those expectations,” Williamson’s mother said. “Kayleigh and others have all broken this mold by saying that, ‘I’m not those expectations. I’m me and give me that chance.'”