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Four 'medical buddy' pairs enter Nashville Kids Triathlon

3:10 PM, May 19, 2013   |    comments
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Natalie Young looks at her little brother and sees joy.

The gleeful squeals that brighten the redhead's freckled face. The vibrant eyes that shine out from behind his glasses.

"It's amazing to see him smile with everything he does," Natalie, 13, said of her brother, Dylan, 9.

Particularly when everything he does is such a challenge.

Dylan was born with one side of his brain larger than the other. His left arm hangs limp. He cannot walk without someone by his side, and moves mostly by wheelchair. He doesn't have peripheral vision on his left side and is legally blind in his right eye. He has had two brain surgeries.

He is limited cognitively and physically, but today he will participate in a triathlon.

With Natalie by his side, the siblings will be one of four pairs of children - each with one able-bodied child and one with a disability - to compete in today's Nashville Kids Triathlon at Centennial Park. One partner will pull his or her "medical buddy" in a raft during the swim, bike with the buddy, and then push the buddy in a stroller during the run. It will mark the first time four such teams have done the race together.

The group has been inspired by brothers from White House, Tenn., 9-year-old Conner Green and 7-year-old Cayden Long, who two years ago broke barriers when Conner decided to tow, pull and push Cayden - who has cerebral palsy - in the triathlon. The move allowed Cayden, who cannot walk or talk, to become an athlete instead of being relegated to the sidelines. As Conner said the first time he competed with his brother, he would rather finish last together than first alone.

Since that time, the brothers have garnered national attention. They were profiled on ESPN's "E:60," named Sports Illustrated for Kids "SportsKids of the Year" in 2012, and were flown to a Miami Heat game by NBA player LeBron James, who through his foundation has created a special wrist band in honor of the boys.

Conner and Cayden, who also will compete in today's Nashville Kids Triathlon, share a love for racing and for each other, and by doing triathlons together across the country, they are teaching others about inclusion. Their actions have moved many families in Middle Tennessee, and now others, like Natalie and Dylan, are following in their path.

"I can't express the door that will open up for these families when they see their children cross the finish line," said Conner and Cayden's mom, Jenny Long.

"It is teaching one child to help and love and have empathy, and it is teaching the other child that they can accomplish things, too.

"It takes courage on both ends."

Siblings step up

Individually, Faith and Trey Boswell have crossed many finish lines.

The brother and sister pair from Hendersonville have competed alone in kids triathlons for several years. Neither has any physical or mental disabilities, but when they saw Conner and Cayden do the race, their focus shifted from their own goals to someone else's.

This year, they reached out to the Nashville Kids Triathlon's organizing committee to see if they could be paired with kids who are like Cayden and would not otherwise be able to participate.

"I just really like to help people," 10-year-old Faith said. "I like to do a lot of triathlons, and I want them to have fun, too."

Through Vanderbilt, Faith and her 10-year-old brother have been connected with Tiffany Morales and Meg Branscome. Seven-year-old Meg, who lives in Clarksville, is more mobile and communicates via her iPad. Six-year-old Tiffany, who is from Nashville, is non-verbal.

To Jenny Long, the pairing of these children only emphasizes the power of inclusion.

"These kids are an example to people who don't realize the importance of getting out and lending a hand or their legs to help others enjoy sports or recreational activities," she said.

Dylan has come a long way

There was a period in Dylan's life when he was experiencing up to 200 seizures a day. At age 4, it was almost unfathomable that he would ever walk across the room. Doctors suggested the family learn to cope.

"But somewhere deep down inside that just didn't feel right or acceptable," father Bryan Young said.

So instead they pushed.

Through surgery and rehabilitation, Dylan began to acquire motor and verbal skills. Only recently has he been able to stand alone for seconds at a time. He also has begun to make letter sounds, saying "mama" for the first time two weeks ago.

The day he made an assisted trip around the bases at a Nashville Sounds baseball game illustrated his advancement.

"For most people, that's an ordinary common thing," Bryan said. "But that's a milestone for him that's enormous."

Still, nothing moves quickly when it comes to Dylan's medical progress. But, as Bryan said, "Slow and steady wins the race."

Focus for this family now has moved from medical crisis management to quality of life. Tears come in place of words when his mom, Catie, tries to verbalize why her family works so hard to give Dylan opportunities.

"He's impressed us so much," Catie said. "We don't feel like we can stop pushing him."

So today, Natalie will.

She will begin the race in the water, swimming as she pulls Dylan in a raft behind her. During the bike, Dylan will mount a special tricycle. His body will be strapped to the seat and his feet to the wheels. His physical therapist will push him from behind while Natalie rides alongside. Then Dylan will be moved to a stroller, which Natalie will push as she runs.

When she nears the finish line, she will stop. Her brother will get out and she will help him walk across the finish line.

When he does, she imagines he will have that smile she adores. And she will, too.

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