Athletes With Disabilities Change Endurance Sports For The Better

Inclusion in Marathons for Special Needs Kids and Duo Young Racers

DULUTH, Minn. —  Grandma’s marathon may be over for 2019 but that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to hit the pavement running!

In this week’s Great Outdoors Fox 21’s Brittney Merlot introduces us to a duo team from Wisconsin who’s story is a little bit different from the rest.

When it comes to race day some of the runners are elite looking to place, while some are striving simply for personal goals.

I’m going to introduce you to a Wisconsin boy from Eau Claire who has a unique dream of his own and having special needs doesn’t slow him down one bit!

“As a mom it is just really incredible because WE ARE INTRODUCING YOU Jeffrey loves it. He loves being out there, the fans and spectators are always cheering for him and those are just moments in his life that he doesn’t otherwise get to experience. That full level of inclusion and feeling the support of others.” said Jeffrey’s Mother, Jess Bergeman.

Jeffrey Bergeman had a cardiac event when he was 22 months old. Not having adequate oxygen to his brain for 20 minutes resulted in severe brain damage and cerebral palsy. But this 13 year old has big goals and loves going fast!

Him and his father Jordan run marathons together as a duo, where he is pushed by his Dad in a modified racing wheel chair. But Dad wasn’t always a runner, his wife got the duo together.

“I swore I would never run a 5K and after a lot of convincing she got me to do a 5K back in October of 2016, been hooked ever since.” said Jordan Bergeman, Jeffrey’s father.

They’ve raced eight marathons together now!

“Cheer them on and of course get to the finish line in time to watch them cross! That’s always my favorite part because he is so excited! Dad is usually fully spent and looks exhausted and Jeffrey looks like he could go some more!” explained Jess Bergeman.

But it hasn’t always been easy entering into the races. Road blocks as a duo team keep rolling in one after the other.

“Certain races that don’t necessarily have any exposure to duo teams, a lot of them can be apprehensive, fearful even of us participating.” explained Jordan Bergeman.

Why? Well Race Directors see the chair as more of a “stroller”. Most races don’t allow strollers. So for this family and Jeffrey’s dreams…”It’s breaking down the barriers of saying no, this is a custom racing chair, not a stroller, we’ve done it before.” said Jordan Bergeman.

The racing chair they have is specially made with every safety precaution taken. It’s not cheap and much safer than a stroller.

Since many races lack exposure to duos and don’t understand this, they’ve had to settle for half marathon entries in the past, instead of the full.

“After working with them, they say well we will let you do the half. But what was great about that, was after running the half, we had another conversation with the race director and a complete 180° swing happened. They said yes, absolutely we want you guys to come back and it’s because they saw what it was and what it was all about.” explained Jordan Bergeman.

Another barrier to break down was at our very own Grandma’s Marathon, where they were given strict and steep qualifying times. They demanded the duo run the marathon in 4 hours and 15 minutes in order to participate.

“What I didn’t like about that is, it was something imposed only on duo teams. It’s not for any other participants there.” said Jordan Bergeman.

Everyone else has 7 hours to complete Grandmas full Marathon.

“That initially just hit me hard where that just doesn’t seem fair. It’s not right. And we were only two minutes off from that qualifying anyways.” said Jordan Bergeman.

They ran it in 4:17 and ultimately were not allowed into the 2017 Grandmas Marathon.

But after many talks with the race directors, it became clear the concern was the congestion on the course between the 5–7 hour time frame.

“What is your plan for safety if you are going to be slower than that 4:15, how are you going to do that? My team triumph they run with more than one angel they call it.” explained Jordan Bergeman. “With two people flanking each side of the chair they can do crowd control, keep the other runners safe too. It does really seem, at least to me, that it’s becoming more and more known and more open, even at Grandma’s.”

Successfully completing their first Grandmas Marathon last year, they came back for more this year!

“Jeffrey loves race day! To his left is yes, to his right is no, so he is turning his head left which is yes he loves race day!” said Jordan Bergeman. “I don’t know if he ever sleeps the night before a race. I have to wear ear plugs most of the time if we are at a hotel because he seems to get pretty excited! He’s the only reason I do it, like I said I would of never ran a 5K if it wasn’t for him.”

They completed this year’s full marathon in just 3 hours and 10 minutes, blowing the 4:15 imposed time out of the water!

“He just set his goals bigger and bigger. Through conversations with him we have learned that his two primary goals are to do an Iron Man Triathlon and the Boston Marathon.” said Jordan Bergeman.

But another complication rises up again, even after running two qualifying times for the Boston Marathon.

“There again, they unfortunately won’t let us participate because he is not 18. So we are trying to work with them to see if we can get something to change. Particularly with duo teams. Leave that general age of 18 for the general participants and those propelling themselves!” said Jordan Bergeman.

For a father who wants to make his child’s dreams and goals come true. Could Dad keep up the speed for 5 more years until he turns 18?

“I don’t know? You know honestly, that’s the thing. They keep lowering the qualifying times, it just dropped under 5 minutes from last year. Again, that’s not a small feat especially while pushing. He’s going to get bigger, he’s going to get older and lord willing he will still be with us in 5 years and we don’t know that either.”

With time of the essence, people say to Jordan that he can go out and run Boston on his own… “But it’s not my dream! Never dreamt of that being a goal of my own. He expressed it, he wants to do it. So then it became my goal to do it with him. So to go and run it without him… Wouldn’t even seem right.” explained Jordan Bergeman.

The family wants to push inclusion, for not only their son but others getting turned away, just like him.

“He said he just feels free when he is out on the race course. He is super competitive too. So he loves to try and win age group awards and place in overall placement if we can.” said Jordan Bergeman.

His sister who suffers from brittle bone syndrome is also pushing for change and inclusion.

“In Wisconsin we were the first duo team to start doing cross country sports events. So there were a lot of rules we had to follow.” said Susan Bergeman, Jeffrey’s little sister.

This included starting 30 seconds behind the boys group and not being able to pass people!

“That’s just not fair!” yelled Susan Bergeman.

This will be their second year running together and now things are changing.

“It’s super fun and all the kids there are super nice and they are like, whoa you are doing this! Can I try? I always say sure! Just be careful! And don’t break anything! So it’s so much fun and all the kids are learning about new things” explained Susan Bergeman.

If you want to help push for change and inclusion in your area, try calling race directors and letting them know how you feel, and you can donate to the Bergeman’s go fund me page and follow them on Facebook at Fueled By Faith.  You can also get in touch with race directors at the Boston Marathon and urge them to accept duos with captains under the age of 18.

Help not only makes Jeffrey’s dream come true but others behind him, sharing the same passion!

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