Conner Stewart, a member of the Marissa-Coulterville co-op cross country team, spent the summer training for the 2017 season just like any of the thousands of other runners in Illinois.
The 17-year-old covered more than 300 miles, running 8-10 miles a day around the family farm in rural Randolph County, near Coulterville. His goal is to qualify for the Class 1A State Cross Country Meet in Peoria in November.
Diagnosed with autism at 2-and-1/2-years-old, Conner has achieved more than Marissa coach Matt Espenschied imagined possible when he came out for the team as a freshman three years ago.
“I had my doubts if it would work when he came out as a freshman. I didn’t know how it would go,” Espenschied said. “It was tough thinking about it. I’m thinking does he need an aid? What does he need?
“But halfway through the season, it was clear that he just loved to run. Running was like his medication.”
Running on the famed 3-mile trek at Detweiler Park in Peoria — the site of the Illinois High School Association’s state cross country championships — on Saturday at the First to the Finish Invitational — Stewart posted his fastest time ever, 19 minutes 2 seconds, in the Class 1A event.
That puts him in the middle of the Meteors’ varsity lineup, but it is more than five minutes faster than Stewart’s best time as a freshman.
“My goal is to go under 19 minutes. Actually 18:30,” Stewart said following the Meteors practice Monday. “I like to run. It helps with my autism and makes me stronger. My goal is qualify for state.”
Michael and Charlene Stewart didn’t waste any time accommodating for Conner’s diagnosis of autism.
“The doctors didn’t really give us a great prognosis, and we started early intervention in home therapy” said Charlene Stewart, a teacher. “We started everything — physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, music therapy, applied behavioral analysis. we did everything possible.
“If there was something we thought would help, we did it. If there is one thing I would tell a parent whose child is diagnosed, it’s therapy, therapy, therapy and social integration. I’m a grade school teacher and I know the importance of having an autistic child in the classroom and having typical children nurture them.”
Conner attends regular classes at Coulterville High School, although he does take special reading classes to help prepare him go to college. The Stewarts hope Conner will attend Southwestern Illinois College next year.
Charlene Stewart said her son is a member of the Randolph County 4H Club and shows meat goats, dairy goats and poultry. He is also a member of the Coulterville High School BETA Club.
“Conner has been blessed by being surrounded by so many wonderful and supportive and staff and faculty at Coulterville High School as well as coach Matt (Espenschied),” she said. “Matt has been a real inspiration to Conner.”
Michael Stewart said he and his wife also went through special training in order to better deal with and meet the needs of their son.
“It was hard for everyone when Conner was first diagnosed. As a parent, you think what am I going to have to different?” he said. “The worst thing you can do is be in denial. If you think something may be wrong, get your child diagnosed and then do whatever you can.
“We don’t treat Conner any different. We’re not like, ‘Oh Conner, you don’t have to do this because you have special needs,’ We make him toe the line as well.”
Starting to run
Conner began running when he was in the seventh grade as a member of the Coulterville Junior High Track program.
“I was good at it and so I just kept doing it,” Conner said. “I like to train and work out with my friends. They treat me nice. I also show my goats and my chickens. I have strong shoulders from picking up goats.
“I want to go to either SWIC or SIU-Carbondale. I want to be in either agriculture or cooking. I love to cook.”
Dakota Gregory, has been friends with Conner for many years. Tyler Place and Kade Portz have been among his friends and teammates since high school.
Portz said he’s impressed with how much improvement Conner has made in the past year.
“Conner is well liked and his times have really improved a great deal,” Portz said. “He used to be over 20 minutes, now he’s down in the low 19s. He has really worked hard and that hard work has paid off.”
A special bond has developed between Conner and Espenschied. With Espenschied’s help, Conner has developed into a capable runner for the Marissa-Coulterville squad.
“Coach has really helped me a lot with my running,” Conner said. “He’s helped with my speed. He’s helped me run faster. I hope to run in 5K races someday.”
Conner placed 52nd out of 207 runners at the New Athens Invitational and placed 36th out of 133 runners at the Marissa Invitational earlier this month. He earned medals in both events.
“Conner wants to run 18:30 this year and I have no doubt that he will get there,” Espenschied said. “His sophomore year he was voted by his teammates as the most improved runner and last year he was voted the most dedicated. This year he’ll probably be the most dedicated runner again because he put more miles 300-400 than anyone else.
“That’s all him. It’s nothing that I have done. He’s the one who has put in the time done the work.”
Espenschied has even offered Conner a job next year if he wants it.
“I get sad and teary-eyed when I think about the fact that Conner is graduating,” Espenschied said. “I’m really going to miss him. I really like having him around. I told him that he can be my assistant coach next year if he’s around.
“I’ve had a couple of college coaches contact me about Conner. I’m not sure what level, but I think he could run in college.”