Most people really don’t want to get up at 6 a.m. to run. Some people might, but it’s certainly not a common trait. However, the cross country team has a dedicated set of students willing to wake early, run far, and pant the whole way in order to better themselves and their group for their own benefit, but more importantly, the team.
Though the official cross country season is over, the qualities the team had, made them a singular group willing to face any difficulty together.
Two people overcome obstacles and refused to allow hardships get to them by going faster, farther and better than anyone else.
These people are Cameron Jackson and Nick Barrera. Not only do they hold their own with the rest of their teammates, but they also had unique obstacles to overcome.
Jackson is deaf and Barrera is legally blind.
The two boys have become pillars of strength for the cross country team, and for good reason. Barrera, a freshman, refuses to use a guide rope to help him run and Jackson, a senior, has recorded the fastest 5k time in the country in his division, though it has since been bested.
Jackson advanced through many of the University Interscholastic League cross country competitions, taking third in the district meet, which took place last October, and advanced to the regional competition in Lubbock.
Though Jackson did not advance to the state UIL meet — he finished 11th — putting him one spot away from making the state championship contest.
“It was disappointing,” he said of this competition, “but I was competing in 5A against much better athletes. And I won’t let this stop me.”
Barrera has been inspired throughout the year by his fellow runner and, while he and Jackson may be more teammates than best friends, they have relied on one another for encouragement throughout the season.
Most sight-impaired runners will use a guide rope, a measure of rope two to three feet long held by both the runner and a guide a little ways ahead. The rope held by the guide helps the runner avoid obstacles and it keeps a simple path in order to make sure they don’t lose their way.
This is not the case for Barrera. For him, he relies on the sounds to guide him. Sometimes his fellow runners help him out, so there is a significant amount of trust between him and the rest of his teammates, who are willing to support Barrera both physically and spiritually.
Barrera decided to run cross country when he entered high school, since he was determined to play a sport, but his parents were opposed to violent or contact sports such as football or even soccer, due to the possibility that it could hurt his vision further.
When the season began, Barrera valiantly joined the team and was immediately presented with some options.
Coach Jayme Kiraly offered Barrera the option of using a rope to help him through practices and races.
“He told me, ‘I don’t want to use that [guide rope] …’ I was like, ‘OK, you don’t have to, We’ll run next to each other,’” she said.
The first time, they ran four miles.
While most people assume this lack of a standard guiding system would be the most challenging, Barrera says the hardest part of running cross country are the obstacles on the courses, including mud pits, logs and thick brush.
Darkness also made it difficult, he said. Often, the team’s practices took place early in the morning before the sun had risen.
Barrera is considered legally blind due to optic nerve atrophy that has caused blurred vision and reduced his depth perception to a maximum of about 20 feet.
On rare occasions, Barrera will get tripped up when he doesn’t notice a ditch or hole in the ground and, sometimes, has even fallen down. He doesn’t get frustrated when this happens, he says.
“I just keep going,” he said.
The two runners manage to inspire each other through every run. Barrera even says Jackson encourages him every time they run.
“The most rewarding part,” Barrera said, “is showing that I can do just as much as other people can, no matter what I have to go through.”
While Barrera is only at the beginning of his running career, Jackson has reached the end of his high school career.
Jackson has made exceptional advancements as a runner through his high school career, becoming, as a senior, one of the top cross country runners in the nation despite his disability.
“It is a challenge,” Jackson said. “But that is one of my favorite things about cross country. Another is that track is just round and flat, but in cross country, you never know what you are going to get. You may get a flat, open course, or a harder one, but that keeps it exciting.”
Posting one of the fastest 5-kilometer times in the country, Jackson is considered among the fastest high school distance runners in the area.
Running had always been a part of Jackson’s life. His father qualified for the Olympic trials when Jackson was younger, but due to a broken leg, he was unable to compete. This early exposure through his father led to Jackson joining the cross country team in the seventh grade.
“I [was terrible],” he said of his first attempts. “But eventually I grew and became a much better, faster runner.”
Jackson’s friends and family were always supportive of him, and he showed his gratitude by never giving up.
On Oct. 20, Jackson won the Boswell Pioneer Trail Run, posting the fastest time of the year for a 5K run, which translates to about 3.1 miles, having run it in 15 minutes and 5 seconds, thus beating out the previous record by a whopping 8 seconds. Pulling away in the last 400 meters of the race, Jackson finished about 15 seconds in front of the second-place winner.
Kiraly knows just what the advantage of this runner is.
“His big deal is the third mile,” she said. “If he can be with someone at the third mile, he will run a harder third mile than anyone else will run.”
She was extremely proud of his performance in this particular race.
“He probably looked the best that he has ever looked as far as smooth and comfortable,” she said.
At the Cowboy Jamboree in Stillwater, Okla., in September, Jackson also took first place in the high school boys 5-kilometer run, finishing with a time of 16 minutes, 4 seconds. This big finish helped Jackson’s team achieve seventh place overall in the competition.
His fellow members are huge parts of his running achievements, Jackson said.
“They tell me how the places are and if I’m doing well, and if someone has come up,” he said, “trying to sneak up behind me because I can’t see them,” he said.
While these two runners are supported by their teammates, they are also a huge part of those same teammates’ inspiration. Knowing these two can achieve such amazing things despite having to deal with a variety of disabilities makes the other runners realize how far they can push themselves.
“If they can do it, why can’t we?” asked Luis Barraza, a senior and also a member of the cross country team. He echoes a similar sentiment held by all the other team members, who look up to Jackson and Barrera.
MADDIE BELL and SARAH MILES are both seniors at Ryan High School. Both students are participants in the Denton Record-Chronicle’s “Speak Out Loud” writing program for student journalists.