Orion Hall picked up speed as he ran down the slope to the finish line.
Two miles in 19 minutes, 43 seconds. He didn’t finish first, but he was nowhere near last. Not bad for a 13-year-old in his first year of cross country, who also lives with autism.
Besides the encouragement of family and teammates, Orion, a seventh-grader at Hilliard Heritage Middle School, had his own “posse.” They’re four members of the Hilliard Darby High School cross-country team who run with Orion. They help him stay the course, so to speak, so he doesn’t meander off.
The ability to focus is required on cross-country courses marked only by chalk lines and the occasional cone.
During the meet on Tuesday, Ellis Farson, Nick Kallis, Danny Reynolds and Spencer Strohm surrounded Orion as he ran the course at Hilliard Davidson High School. It looked similar to the president out for a jog surrounded by security.
The four don’t set the pace for Orion, Orion paces them. However, they did suggest that he beat the Weaver Middle School kid in front of him, then the next one.
Competing teams approved of Orion’s posse and the Ohio High School Athletic Association gave its blessing, said Orion’s mom, Renee Hall.
“I did it on a whim,” Strohm said when the call went out to help Orion. “But this has made a great change in me.”
Orion’s effort is inspiring, Strohm said. “He’s a great kid.” Strohm said helping Orion has strengthened his own value system of what’s important.
“It’s giving back,” Reynolds said. “Coach is always instilling that in us, to give back for what we’ve received.”
“Coach” is Mark Tremayne, Darby’s head cross-country coach. Heritage is the feeder school to Darby.
“Word got out and now everybody on the team wants to help him,” Tremayne said. With 62 runners, there will have to be a rotation system, he said.
Diagnosed with autism at age 3, Orion was able to read and do math at the first-grade level when he was 6, Renee Hall said.
“A 7, he recited the Cub Scouts oath and motto on his own,” his father, John, said.
But at age 8, Orion lost the ability to talk. Almost three years ago a doctor discovered that the boy was having seizures in his sleep. Later, a scan at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital found the problem.
“The damage was to the language center in his brain,” Mrs. Hall said. Orion will give one- or two-word answers to questions on topics that interest him, such as video gaming. He likes the older games, which he plays at a high level, Mr. Hall said.
After several years in schools structured for students with autism, Orion started public school this week at Heritage. He’s in a special academic living-skills class with six other students, a teacher and two aides. Depending on an evaluation, he could later attend mainstream classes, such as math, at which he excels, Mrs. Hall said.
The Halls were searching for an opportunity to help him stay fit. They found it when Orion and his mother were watching his sister, Jessica, at one of her cross-country meets for Darby.
“The girls team runs by,” Mrs. Hall said. “Then the boys run by and he kind of acts like them.” Orion stood and moved his feet as if he were running in place, she said.
He started with a 13-minute mile and a month later had improved to 10 minutes.
He holds his head up and his gait has improved. The sunglasses he wears look cool, but he’s actually sensitive to bright light.
But most important, running has calmed his fits and he is often exhausted after a race.
“He sleeps so much better,” Mrs. Hall said. “It’s so awesome to have something happy to talk about. We’ve been through so much.”
At Tuesday’s race, fans and runners from both Heritage and Weaver cheered on Orion. Teammates, coaches Joe Jackson and Erin Luzader, and Orion’s aide, Ohio State University student Lindsay McIlwain, surrounded him with hugs and back pats.
19:43 was 20 seconds faster than his first race.
“Personal record!” Mrs. Hall exclaimed, hugging her son.
“Do you remember what I promised you?” she asked.
“Ice cream,” Orion replied. Obviously, a topic that interests him.