They weren’t expected to come in first.
Not even close as a matter of fact.
But when the names of Dave Ferrell and his 13-year-old son Blake were announced at the start of the New Jersey State Triathlon July 24, you’d have thought they were the front runners.
Ferrell, a member of St. Mary Parish, New Monmouth, was positioned with Blake, who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy, in the water in Mercer County Park waiting for the first leg of the event to begin.
An Olympic distance triathlon is a lengthy and complex event which includes a 1.5 kilometer swim, a 40 kilometer bike ride and a 10 kilometer run which computes to about 42 miles for the participant. That takes a lot of doing for any individual participant.
It would take double the amount of energy for Ferrell who planned to push or pull his son the entire length of the Olympic distance event with the help of an inflatable boat, a special carrier for his bike, a racing wheelchair and an extraordinary team of volunteers.
Thus, it took barely a nanosecond for Ferrell’s “competitors” to realize they were up against something special when the “team” was announced.
“When the guy started announcing over the loud speaker what Blake’s disability is, the crowd started roaring,” said Ferrell, 50, a vice president and financial advisor with Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, Red Bank, said. “The applause and the clapping continued all along the course,” he said. “We would get these guys flying by saying ‘Hi’ to my son and wishing him good luck.
“We’ve been so accepted by the (triathlon) community it’s almost shocking,” said Ferrell who noted that Blake has been involved in other sporting events including the Special Olympics crafted especially for those with different abilities and always been warmly welcomed.
Blake’s family – mom, Colleen, younger brother Luke, and his dad – are very grateful for that. Blake’s participation in this event, though, was a bit of icing on the abilities cake, Dave Ferrell said. It was one more way of saying that “there can be no limitations on disabled kids and their parents….These kids have a place at every table. You just have to figure it out.”
Figuring It Out
Making the best of Blake’s disabilities – what Ferrell calls “figuring it out” – is something he and Colleen have been working on since their son came into their lives.
Their oldest son cannot walk without assistance and has vision limitations. He doesn’t speak but that doesn’t mean he can’t communicate. His hearing is fine and he loves music. Songs from “The Lion King” are particular favorites.
“He gives you physical clues,” his dad said. When he’s “ecstatic” Blake moves his head from side to side. If he’s bored, the motion will cease. “To get a smile out of you, he’ll reach out and grab your hand. He lets us know when he’s happy.”
“For many years, it was going to doctor after doctor and medical center after medical center but as we progressed, we came to a point where we decided that we could continue to go to doctors every month or we could make the best of things,” Ferrell said.
The couple decided to handle the reality of the situation by maximizing ways for Blake to enjoy his life. “That’s where faith comes in. There are so many aspects you fear when you have a child in a situation like this,” Ferrell said. “You fear that if you go out people might make fun of your child or that you will not be accepted as a family.
“You really have to have belief in humanity in general. It’s a real leap of faith when you take your child to a program and pray he’ll be accepted.”
Having Blake participate in the Holy Innocents program in St. Mary Parish was one of the first steps the family took in that direction. The Holy Innocents Society is a diocesan society whose membership is dedicated to the spiritual welfare of Special Children of all ages; autistic, blind, mentally retarded, emotionally or physically handicapped, neurologically impaired or learning disabled.
“We didn’t know there was such a thing as the Holy Innocents Society and when we found it at St. Mary’s I was hesitant,” Ferrell said. “I had a vision of (a regular) religious education program. But they had adapted the program for special children and he just loved it.
“We go there every Saturday morning. He made his First Holy Communion and he connects with people there,” said Ferrell.
Involvement in the Holy Innocents Society contributed, he said, to a renewed faith in humanity which was fueled even further by the reaction of people to Blake during sporting events such as the triathlon. “Here you have these hot shot athletes really cheering him on. It just lets you know that we’re a good society.
“I was raised Catholic and from a Catholic viewpoint, you have the faith that people are put here to do good things.”
Cheering Blake On
Early on, the family had gotten Blake involved in everything from baseball and basketball, challenged youth sports leagues, a special swim program and horseback riding but about four years ago, Ferrell decided to take his son’s sports involvement to a different level.
Drawing inspiration from the famous father and son team of Dick and Rick Hoyt who participate in a similar capacity in marathons and triathlons all over the United States, Ferrell whose own sports days ended in college, began training.
He works out with a coach, Moira Horan, who also began helping his younger son, Luke, 9, prepare to become a part of what, combining Luke and Blake’s first initials, has become known as “Team LB”.
“Luke is a very social nine-year-old and he has a unique way of connecting with his brother,” Ferrell said.
“It’s not typical brother and brother, but they connect and have their fun. Luke helps with organization and when we go out to races, the equipment people have Luke helping out and doing jobs as well.”
Mom Colleen is there at the ready as well cheering the guys on and lending help and support along with a group of friends and family who, on a day as steamy as July 24, worked together to keep dad and son running in a cool zone.
“We went to great lengths. We had stops, ice bags and cold towels throughout the event. It was great,” said Ferrell. Noting that more than 1,000 triathletes participated in the well publicized event, Ferrell said he hopes that Team LB will inspire more people to involve their children in similar events.
“It’s not just about us,” he said, “it’s a family thing to do.”
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