Cowbells clanged. Onlookers cheered. A sheriff’s deputy flashed a thumbs-up.
It was all for 11-year-old Cody Cwiklinski as he high-fived passers-by in Sunday’s big race.
Cody’s black bandana read, “5K Cody 2014.” The one atop the head of Jen Kellerman, who pushed him in a three-wheeled rig, read, “Running For Cody 2014.”
As Cody and Kellerman approached the end of the 5K race, Lisa Cwiklinski couldn’t contain her emotions. Here was her son – the legally blind boy with cerebral palsy and epilepsy who moves around with the assistance of a walker and dreams of one day walking independently – crossing the finish line at the Buffalo Marathon.
“It’s unexplainable,” Cwiklinski said. “Overcome with joy. Simply amazing.”
Cody joked that he had been training hard for the race – by eating plenty of chocolate ice cream (he fancies it with M&Ms mixed in).
The two words that came to mind for him to sum up the experience were “happy” and “friendship.”
“It was very exciting that I had my hands up in the air,” Cody said, recalling the home stretch.
Kellerman, Cwiklinski’s best friend, finished Sunday’s race in 35:19. When Kellerman heard about the plan of Team Footsteps, a charity dedicated to people with cerebral palsy, to run in support of those with the disorder, she immediately thought of Cody.
“He’s a sweet kid,” Kellerman said. “The second I met him, he’d ask me all kinds of questions. He was so interested in my life, asking about what I do and my kids and everything. I pick him up and we do date nights.”
Not surprisingly, many of those dates involve ice cream.
When she saw Cody’s family lined up at the finish line – cameras out, tears streaming while smiles spread – Kellerman wanted to both push harder and slow down so they could cherish the moment.
“I can’t even talk to her without crying,” Cwiklinski said of Kellerman. “She knows, it’s like an unspoken thing. When things happen, she’s usually the one that’s crying with me. She knows that when she crossed and we were crying and we hugged, no words necessary.”
Cody works hard at his dream of walking on his own. He does physical therapy at his school, the Cantalician Center for Learning, and then comes home and works out on the Cheektowaga family’s fitness equipment.
“He’s constantly working,” said Cwiklinski. “If you could see the muscles on this kid, it’s unbelievable.”
His record for standing on his own is 20 seconds. His immediate goal is to walk with crutches. Then he wants to do it on his own.
In February 2009, the family flew to St. Louis for Cody to undergo a procedure with a world-renowned surgeon. They had seen numerous children with cerebral palsy end up walking after having the surgery. But though it helped Cody, he still needs the walker.
The following summer, he had his hips reconstructed and was in a body cast the whole summer.
“Most people have their kids walking when they’re really young,” Cwiklinski said. “I have an 11-year-old and he stands for 20 seconds and we are ready to party … every day there’s progress. It’s slow progress, but no matter what, it’s progress.”
Cody couldn’t stick around very long after the marathon. He had to get to his baseball game. He plays in the Challenger Division for children with special needs in Amherst Little League.
Cody has a twin brother, Justin, who also has cerebral palsy. At 1 year old, doctors told the parents the boys would never walk or talk. Yet, after years of therapy, Justin can walk and has his black belt in tae kwon do.
“Every time either one of them has the littlest thing at school, I’m there bawling my eyes out, because I’m thinking this isn’t supposed to happen,” Cwiklinski said.
“We have a lot of ups and downs and doctors and surgeries with both of them, but they proved everybody wrong. All the doctors, they proved them all wrong.”
Cody is already talking about doing the marathon again. Next time, Justin wants to join.
“If his brother ever does it with him, oh my gosh, I’m going to be a mess,” Cwiklinski said.