This is Jack with Olympian Gary Morgan at the 2017 AAU Junior Olympic Games.
EDITORS NOTE: Gary Morgan met an amazing kid named Jack Zurn last summer at the AAU Junior Olympic Games. Jack is cool, funny, and determined. He reminds me of another determined kid at his age, Mikey Brannigan. What they both have in common is they both love running, and they are both Autistic. Mikey went on to become the first Autistic runner to win a gold in the Paralympic Games and was Paralympic Athlete of the Year. Maybe Jack will be the next Mikey Brannigan. We also learned that the Zurns used to be neighbors with the Hunter family. Their son, runner Drew Hunter (ran a sub-four mile in high school) used to come down and run with Jack when he was little to burn off some energy. What's really amazing is that most kids with Autism rely on medication. Because of running, Jack is medication free. Way to Go Jack!
This story was written by Jack's mom Liz. Although we did have an interview call with her we didn't think anyone could tell Jack's story better than she could.
Jack Zurn is a regular 12 year old kid in 6th grade. He lives in Jacksonville, FL with his Mom & Dad, brother and sister and two dogs and a cat. He is on the honor roll at school. He loves playing with friends, has a small arsenal of Nerf guns, loves puns and pranks and playing Fortnite. He knows everything about his favorite DC Comics character, The Flash. If you get him talking about comic characters, he can talk your ear off...which is actually pretty incredible, considering that at age 2, we were told he would probably never regain his speech and language skills. This has been one crazy decade for our family. Ten years ago, Jack was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
When Jack first started showing symptoms of Autism, there were only 13 states in the country with mandatory coverage for Autism Services. He had lost his speech and language, stopped making eye contact. He was self-stimulating (stimming) by hand flapping or waving things in front of his eyes. He was obsessively lining up his toys and having hours long emotional meltdowns. He was slipping away from us day by day. We were told to "wait and see" what would happen. We just couldn't sit and wait. We started walk groups and joined the ranks of groups like Autism Speaks, advocating for children on the Spectrum. We spent thousands of dollars out of pocket on speech, OT, PT and ABA therapies. He showed remarkable improvements but struggled with the ADHD component of Autism. He could never sit still. He had very little impulse control and had trouble focusing on tasks. He was put on Ritalin at age 6 and switched medications several times with detrimental side effects including trichotillomania (picking his hair and pulling out his hair), sleep disturbances, insomnia, night walking, narcolepsy and bipolar type episodes. We played the medication game for several years sometimes with one medication for ADHD and others for the side effects. While Ritalin was the most helpful with the least side effects, it still had effect on his growth, appetite and behavior when it was out of his system, like a "crash."
In the fourth grade, Jack asked if he could try out for his school program called "Chargers on the Run" train for a 5K. I am an avid runner and had been running 5K runs for a few years so I loved the idea and said yes. I never knew how much this decision would change our lives. Jack's first 5K race was the McKenzie Run in 2015. He placed 3rd place in his age bracket with a time of 23:20. He was 9. We were floored. I had no idea that he not only loved track...he was actually pretty fast, too! The coach that was helping with the school program also happened to be one of the coaches with the St. John's Striders and invited Jack to come out and run for their track club. I thought that he was too young to be so competitive so I said no thank you. Over the next few months, Jack begged to enter more 5K races, and placed in the top three in his bracket in all of them. He was way faster than me and wanted to get better, so I asked a high school track runner to run with him in exhange for community service hours for working with a student with a disability. That young man encouraged Jack and fostered a love of running that I never imagined. He stopped letting me sign his paperwork for community service because he just "liked to see Jack succeed." A year later, we contacted the Striders.
Jack joined the St. John's Striders Track Club under Coach Ricky Fields (Head Coach) and Brian Yates (Distance Coach) in the outdoor 2017 season for his first season of competitive track. I have to admit, I was nervous. The last thing we want is for people to treat Jack differently because of his Autism. We have a famly saying that Autism is "never an excuse but a challenge to overcome." The Striders were not only willing to give Jack a try but they have nurtured him, encouraged him, and always treated him just like everyone else. His best friends are his teammates and he looks up to the Coaches and older Striders. They have had real impact on his life in a way that is indescribable. Jack also gives back to the special needs community with his Distance Coach by his side they participate in "Ainsley's Angels," a non profit group that has able bodied runners who push modified wheelchairs for 5K races to lend their legs to wheelchair bound racers. Jack is one of the only Angel runners who is also affected by a disability himself.
This past March, Jack participated in the Gate River Run, the country's largest 15K, which ends in a final mile and a half up and down the Hart Bridge in downtown Jacksonville (known by locals in Jacksonville as "The Green Monster.") Jack finished in the top 10% at the River Run this year. He was 8th place in Men 11-13, 502 in Men and 607th overall, out of 15,887 total runners, with a time of 1:08:02.
After a few months on the Striders, we came to summer break. He was still in the middle of the season, but I had talked to his doctors about how much of a huge difference we had been seeing in Jack's behavior and my idea to wean him off of his medications completely. My husband and I worried about the behavior changes but wanted to give him the opportunity to self-regulate. Jack was asking to go off of medications and we wanted to let him try. Those first few medication-free weeks were...interesting. Lots of Autism behaviors like self-stimming and vocal tics were present. But the more he ran and the less meds he took, the better he seemed to adjust. Jack has been medication free for over a year now. Last summer, medicine free, he qualified for the AAU Junior Olympics.
People in our community, our church, our friends, and in the Autism Community rallied behind Jack and helped to sponsor our trip for our family of five to go to the Junior Olympics. We knew that he wasn't going to get on that podium based on his times but the experience of the Junior Olympic Games was one that made our family so proud and gave us so much to be proud of. I have said before that I don't care if he finishes dead last, every race Jack runs is a victory lap for our family and for the Autism community.
"His is a race of hope."
Looking back at doctors who told us that we would need to look at long term care for our son, that he may never learn to talk and properly communicate again, that he had low muscle tone...now it makes the victory of Jack's Junior Olympics journey that much sweeter.
More about Drew Hunter
More about Mikey Brannigan
More about Drew Hunter