Kindergartner Reed Kotalik, 6, of The Woodlands, Texas, doesn’t know what cerebral palsy is. He just knows that his legs don’t work the way he’d like them to sometimes. But that doesn’t stop him from doing what he loves to do—run.
Around the time Reed, who has four siblings, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, he told his mother, Dawn, out of the blue that he would like to try running.
So in November of 2014, just after his fifth birthday, she found a one-mile Thanksgiving race for him to run.
“I had no idea how he did, I just knew that there were thousands of people out there, and so we left,” Dawn Kotalik told Runner’s World by phone. “A couple of days afterward, they called and said they had this two-foot-tall trophy for him. At that point, he said he wanted to do more races.”
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Four months after his diagnosis, Reed competed in the AAU 14-Under Youth National Indoor Track & Field Championships and took home gold medals in the 400 and 800 meters.
Kotalik learned Reed had been born with no cartilage in his throat, a condition called laryngomalacia, when he was six weeks old. He went through speech and eating therapy, which became the focus of the family’s energy for the first two years. Reed also had trouble sleeping, and a series of EEGs eventually revealed that his brain would try to wake him up as often as 17 times per hour during the night. Kotalik also sought advice from an orthopedist, because she had noticed an inversion of his left foot.
Finally, an MRI revealed abnormalities in the white matter in Reed’s brain and he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy shortly before he turned five.
Around that time, Reed’s neurologist recommended that he have surgery to correct the inversion of his foot. Though his mother scheduled the surgery three different times, she ultimately decided to look into other solutions.
“I couldn’t imagine making him take [time] off [from running] to have a foot surgery,” Dawn Kotalik said. “I thought maybe doing more to help his muscle control and movement would be a better solution.”
Reed now follows a schedule that requires discipline well beyond his years. Two or three times per week, Olympic 800-meter hopeful and former University of Arkansas runner Chris Bilbrew picks Reed up around 6:45 a.m. and they do 60–75 minutes of running training before Reed heads off to kindergarten.
“Reed isn’t like other 6-year-olds because he actually wants to do it, so it makes it easier to train him,” Bilbrew, a 1:47 800-meter runner, wrote in an email to Runner’s World. “He is very energetic and determined. He doesn’t like to lose and wants to work to make sure he wins.”
After school, Reed works on strengthening his muscles with the physical therapists at CHI St. Luke’s Health in The Woodlands. He takes Fridays off from training and receives a sports massage, and then spends the weekends working on his field events.
Reed has recently started competing in the shot put, turbo javelin, and long jump as well, in part to pass the time while waiting between his running events at track meets, and in part to keep his options open.
“I didn’t know how much longevity he would have with running, so I thought that if I could go ahead and get him into field events now, that if something happened where his running five years from now isn’t what it can be right now, at least he can still do something in the sport he loves,” Dawn Kotalik said.
Reed just finished up his two-meet indoor track & field season by earning five medals for top-four finishes. His favorite track race is the 1500 meters or mile. At a meet in Ypsilanti, Michigan, he ran 7:37 for 1600 meters, which is the equivalent of 7:39 for a mile.
Reed also enjoys road races. He’s raced as long as five miles, but quickly learned that for now, he prefers 5Ks.
“I think that, in his little mind, he thought that 5K and 5 miles were around the same amount, so after the five-miler, he was like, ‘You know what, I think I’m going to wait a little longer before I try that distance again,’” Dawn Kotalik said.
Reed’s next goal is to qualify for this summer’s Junior Olympics in Houston in four events.
Kotalik says that once her son is old enough to understand what cerebral palsy is, she will explain it to him.
“It seems like he knows something’s up and he likes feeling as though he’s doing something about it,” Kotalik said. “He seems to have that determination to kind of sort through it and work it out.”
“At this point, I see absolutely no limit with what I think he can do for himself,” Kotalik said. “There are certain days I’m one tired momma, but I look at him and I’m like, ‘How can I not just embrace what he’s doing?’”