During his career, Timpanogos High School head cross country coach Jody Benson has watched his athletes cross the finish line thousands of times.
But earlier this season, he saw a finish that brought an extra level of emotion.
No, it wasn’t a state-record time or even a first-place winner. It was a runner who was back in the pack but one who inspires everyone in cross country with every step she takes.
When Timberwolf senior Kate Pinder came running across the line for her first race finish, it thrilled teammates, peers and spectators alike. When you hear her story, it’s clear why her run had such a dramatic impact.
Muscle issues “When I was born, I was born with a disorder called arthrogryposis,” Pinder said last week. “I was born with almost no muscle. The muscle that I did have has fibrous tissue, so it makes it super-stiff. My muscles and my joints can’t move a lot.”
Because of that condition and having Type-1 diabetes, Pinder has spent a lot of time in the hospital. She said that by the age of 14, she had already had 36 surgeries.
But even with all of those physical challenges and limitations, the senior has had to face, her spirit and personality pushed her to do more.
“I feel like I have a unique story and I don’t want to hide behind anything anymore,” Pinder said. “I decided I had to get out. We only have one chance to live and only one chance to go through high school. I have to make the best of this.”
Benson got to know Pinder in the ceramics class he teaches at Timpanogos.
“In that class, they do the pottery wheel for a quarter and then they do hand-building,” Benson said. “She told me she was doing everything, even though I didn’t know if she could do the wheel. But she did it and they were pretty impressive. She had approached me about joining the cross country team before, but then when she was in my class, it reminded me.”
Joining the team
It might have seemed like an odd desire for someone with Pinder’s limitations to want to be a part of a sport that requires such endurance and grueling exertion, but she felt drawn to it.
“I can run — I actually love to run,” Pinder said. “One of the girls on the team does videos of all the races. I have constantly watched those videos and watched the summer camps they do. I can’t do what they are doing, obviously, but I thought that this was a sport that I can do. I can be on the sidelines if they are doing a really hard run. I can stay back and do my own run. I was prompted over and over again that I needed to join cross country. I didn’t understand why, but I know that listening to that prompting was right.”
When Pinder first expressed interest in joining the cross country team, Benson said he couldn’t see any way to make it work. But then he saw a runner from Orem, Ethan Christian, being pushed in a special wheelchair.
“It was like, that’s how we do it,” Benson said. “I talked to Andy Jacobs (Orem’s head coach) and he introduced me to the kid who got the chair. I said I had Kate who wanted to be part of cross country, and he said that this is what he does. He has his own organization that is getting kids with disabilities to be able to participate.”
With the donations of companies like Sodalicious, it didn’t take long for things to come together.
“My son, Joe Benson, ended up putting it all together,” Benson said. “He ended up really getting into it and was more excited about it than either Kate or I was.”
For Pinder, the addition of the mechanical aid was a dream come true.
“I was blown away,” Pinder said. “The guy who got me into this, his name is Mack Bawdin and he works with a company called Run On. They called me down from class and he was there. He said he was with a company that does adaptive training and he could get a wheelchair for me. I was amazed that they would donate a chair for me to be able to run in. I still can’t believe that I have this chair and this opportunity to do it.”
Of course, the race chair — or chariot, as Pinder calls it — requires other runners to push Pinder along during the practice runs and in competitions.
But for Timberwolf seniors Keeper Schaerrer and Emily Hakala, who have spent a lot of time pushing the chair, the benefits of spending the time with their friend far outweigh any sacrifices.
“It brings more of a team aspect because you aren’t just running for yourself any more,” Schaerrer said. “You are running for Kate and you are running for your team.”
Hakala explained that pushing the wheelchair changes the mentality.
“It takes the pressure off of you because you are doing it for someone else,” Hakala said. “It’s not as stressful in that way. You want to do it and so it’s easier for you. A lot of times it’s hard to get myself out to practice if I know I’m just going to run for my own times. But if I know I’m coming to help Kate, it’s going to be much more fulfilling. Instead of having to cheer yourself on in your head, you have someone there to cheer you on for real.”
Benson added that she also provides music as she will carry a speaker with her during the practice runs.
“She tells the runners that whoever is pushing gets to choose the song,” Benson said. “They take turns every mile. We did an 8- or 9-mile run and we had nine different kids pushing her.”
Because some of the Timpanogos cross country training exercises make pushing the chair impossible, Pinder has her own substitute workouts.
Schaerrer said if the run was too hard to push her, Kate would just do laps around the track, up to 2 miles some days.
The two Timpanogos runners said Pinder’s positive attitude impacts the entire team.
“If she can run it, then we can run it,” Schaerrer said. “She keeps us running. We did a workout where we were running laps and when you see her running, it just gets you to go faster and work harder. She’s here for us as a part of the team.”
Benson has noticed how Pinder’s approach to life has spread to the other runners.
“It’s contagious,” Benson said. “You want to be better because of her. It’s been such a blessing to have her on the team.”
Expanding her reach
Pinder’s impact on cross country has spread beyond just the Timberwolf team. Once she started competing in races, she expanded her reach to other runners.
“When we push her, we are further back than we would usually be,” Schaerrer said. “But that means we get to see runners we wouldn’t usually see. We are running and out of breath, but Kate is cheering everyone on. We run past people and invite them to run with us, so we get them running with us and finishing with us. She inspires tons and tons of girls.”
One of those was a runner from another school.
“One of the first races I did, only Keeper was pushing me,” Pinder said. “The grass was pretty long and it was pretty bumpy. Behind us the whole time was this girl who was amazing. Keeper told her to come run with us and she said, ‘OK, I love making new friends.’ She said to me at the end of the race that she wanted to join the school play, but that she was too nervous. She said because of this example, she was going to do it.”
Schaerrer and Hakala said those moments make running in the races something special.
“The first race was definitely harder than I thought it would be, but it was much more fulfilling than I thought it would be,” Hakala said. “I’d almost rather push her than than race on my own because of the satisfaction you get. Kate brings such positivity and having so many people support her, it reflects what an amazing person she is. Every person deserves the same opportunity, regardless of what is holding them back.”
Triumph at the end
Their favorite moment is when they near the end and Pinder gets out of her chair to run across the finish line.
“The finish line is the special time,” Benson said. “You’ve done it, you made it. It’s pretty amazing.”
Pinder said hearing everyone urging her on as she runs is unbelievable.
“Every time I cross the line, I have tears streaming down my face,” Pinder said. “Even people I don’t know are just yelling so loud. Everyone is able to support me, to accept who I am even with my disabilities and the things that make me different. It is amazing to see that. It’s taken me a long time to accept who I am, but when I get out of the chair and cross that finish line, words can’t describe it. To see everyone accept the things I’m doing is just so cool, and I love it so much.”
It hasn’t been easy for Pinder to accept herself or accept the fact that others have to help her to be a part of the cross country team.
“I’ve had to come to realize that I am supposed to be on this team,” Pinder said. “When I run with them or when they do hills, I know it is so hard for them. I feel so bad that they have to take energy to push me, but they are so loving to do it. They fight over pushing me and it makes me feel so special. I had to come to realize that if they say it is OK, it’s OK.”
Hakala and Schaerrer advise anyone who gets the chance to help out a teammate to take advantage of the opportunity.
“Make sure they know that they can, that they don’t feel like a burden,” Schaerrer said. “I know Kate has struggled with that. She will say, ‘I’m sorry’ all the time and we hate that. She’s not a burden at all. She is just so great to have on the team. She’s a gift.”
The Timpanogos community has embraced Pinder, despite her challenges. Not only was she named a team captain for the cross country squad, but she was also recently voted Homecoming Queen.
“I was there with really amazing girls,” Pinder said. “I’m amazed that my school would come together and vote for me. It was such a cool experience and a dream come true for me.”
She hopes to continue her running career as long as possible, perhaps even at the college level.
But no matter what the future brings, she is a firm believer in living in the moment.
“One thing that I always tell myself — and it applies not just to people with disabilities but to everyone — is that there is nothing wrong with where you are right now,” Pinder said. “Everything that you go through can bring you so much happiness. In 10th grade, I hid behind so many walls. I was never happy. So I would say to anyone to get out there. There is so much to live, so much to enjoy in life.”