Catching up with Ryan Jenkins
In between the charging pole vaulters on the track’s periphery and the football players practicing on the grass within, Ryan Jenkins is warming up for the day’s workout. It is hot and most of his teammates are struggling to rev into gear, but Ryan flies around the black ring one, two, three, four times with the focus of a veteran sled dog. I check my timer: he completed his “warmup” mile in under six minutes. He waits patiently for his next assignment as his teammates file in behind him.
“I ran 9:55 in the two mile and I am going to break 9:50 at regionals,” he tells me, his hands on his hips and his breath already back to normal.
Jenkins is the senior star of the Swain County track team. He has not lost a single race this spring after finishing sixth in the state cross country meet back in the fall and has become, in his words, “the pride of Swain County track.” Yet it isn’t just his speed that differentiates him from his teammates. Ryan is autistic. Not only that, but he is also a relative newcomer to the sport of running.
Swain County distance running coach Jennifer Chatham calls out the assigned workout to her runners: a longer run of 1200 meters, two middle distance runs 400 meters, and three 200-meter sprints. She tells Ryan his goal time of 3:41 for the 1200-meter and sends him on his way.
“His first race was at Andrews his freshman year and he ran the two-mile in about fourteen minutes,” Chatham tells me. “The time dropped to twelve minutes by the next race, and by the end of his freshman year he was down to 11:28. Each year since, it has dropped by roughly 30 seconds: 11:04 as a sophomore, 10:28 as a junior, and finally 9:55 as a senior.
She calls out split times to runners as they pass us and round into the next lap.
“Back then, I had to tell him when to stop running,” she continues. “Otherwise he would just keep going. He’s come a long way.”
Ryan finishes his 1200-meter leg in 3:39, two seconds faster than his goal. He and his teammates walk around the track to the ice bath in front of the football fieldhouse, splashing cool water upon their rosy faces before making their way back to the starting line. Chatham tells her runners their respective goal times for the 400-meter runs, with Ryan’s being 1:12, and releases them again.
“Middle schoolers especially see how strong of runner he is and how many records and goals he has broken in the last couple of years, and that helps them see that it is possible,” she says. “The older kids know how fast he is and that they can’t keep up with him, but the younger kids look up to him and say ‘I want to do that.’ Every practice he gives one hundred percent and pushes the other boys to do the same.”
Such records include the 9:55 mark in the 3200-meter and 16:57 five kilometer time at a meet in the fall, despite the fact that it was Jenkins’ first season on the cross country team.
Jenkins finishes his first 400 in 1:10, takes a brief rest, then runs his second in 1:07. He waits for his teammates, then slowly makes his way to the opposite side of the track to begin the string of 200-meter sprints.
“I grew up watching a lot of movies with speed in them like Thomas and Friends, The Flash and Shazam,” Jenkins tells me between shallow breaths. “And now here I am, the pride of Swain County track. I am the fastest dude in all of Swain County. I enjoy speeding down the trail with the wind blowing across my face.”
His goal time for each 200-meter dash is 33 seconds. He breezes through the first rep in 29 seconds, the second in 31, and the third in 30. Two cool down laps follow the sprints. Several runners gladly accept Chatham’s permission to walk the final two loops. Ryan does not.
“Running has brought a sense of activity to my life, something I can do rather than sit in the house all day watching the time tick by and the sun head slowly down,” he says after finishing his cool down laps.
I ask him if he has any advice for other autistic kids with dreams of becoming star athletes.
“Autism says nothing,” he says. “When you are autistic, it can make you a bit pompous, but don’t let it get you out of line though. You want to show your pride, but not to such an extent that you are arrogant or hubris. You just want to stay cool while you show your pride. You can be angry, but you have got to learn to keep your composure along with it.”
As his teammates finish their final two laps, the team congregates in the shade of the visitors’ locker room to stretch and debrief. Chatham goes over some race information ahead of the regional meet as the kids make small talk and catch their breath. As Ryan finishes his stretching, I ask him if I can take a couple of photos of him.
“Sure, but I want my team with me,” he says.
He turns around to face his teammates and sticks a balled fist in the air. He looks around for several seconds, then makes an announcement.