High School Sports

Runner with autism earns college cross-country scholarship, finds his independence

Marissa-Coulterville cross country runner Conner Stewart runs during a team workout. Stewart has earned a scholarship to run at Kaskaskia College in Centralia beginning in August.
Marissa-Coulterville cross country runner Conner Stewart runs during a team workout. Stewart has earned a scholarship to run at Kaskaskia College in Centralia beginning in August. dholtmann@bnd.com

Marissa Jr./Sr. High School senior Conner Stewart has used his love of distance running to help him cope with the day-to-day obstacles of autism.

Now his success is helping him realize a more independent life.

A four-year runner in coach Matt Espenschied's cross-country program, which is a co-op with Coulterville, Stewart has earned a scholarship to run at Kaskaskia College in Centralia beginning in August.

Stewart, the son of Michael and Charlene Stewart, of Coulterville, registered his top time this season at the First to the Finish Invitational at Detweiller Park in Peoria, where he covered the 3-mile course in 19 minutes, 2 seconds. While the 17-year-old Stewart fell short of reaching his goal of qualifying for the state cross-country meet, it helped give him the chance to compete at the college level.

"What excites me most is taking a step toward independence," said Stewart. "I never thought when I was younger that I could be in sports or go to college, so this part of my life is exciting. I am making dreams come true."

A member of the Great Rivers Athletic Conference, Kaskaskia College is coached by Mike Hargis. During Stewart's campus visit, Hargis had Stewart meet with another a member of the team of mostly local athletes.

Hargis said Stewart will fit right in.

"Conner is a fine young man, and we're looking forward to having him as member of our cross-country program," Hargis said. "As a runner, I know he had some good performances in his career, and in talking to Coach Espenschied, he thinks that Conner will do better in the longer distances. We run a little further at the college level, and I think that should fit in with Conner's strength as a runner."

Stewart is also looking forward to majoring in agriculture and the challenges of being a collegiate student-athlete.

"I hope to accomplish many things while a runner at KC. First, while running longer distances I want to shave off time and continue to improve my kick at the end of races." Stewart said. "Coach Hargis had me meet a member of the team that will be returning. It was great getting to meet a teammate, and it helped coach Mike to see if I would fit in, too.

"When I met the teammate, they both told me that I had a family at KC already – and that was the cross-country team."

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