Autistic runner moving up fast in 5K pack
Robert Sansaricq with his mother, Mary, and father, who is examining some the running medals Robert won in 2010. (David Lee/Hudson-Catskill Newspapers)
Robert Sansaricq and his father, Ralph, run at their home in Ghent. Robert, who has autism, is rapidly decreasing his 5K race time as he competes in more of the runs. (David Lee/Hudson-Catskill Newspapers)
By John MasonGHENT — Robert Sansaricq, 19, began running competitively in April. In seven months, he shaved more than five minutes off his time in the 5K run, dropping from a time of 25:37 at the Sean French Run in April to 20 minutes flat at the Chatham Turkey Trot in November.
His Turkey Trot time was good for 25th place overall, out of a field of 312.
Why has such a natural runner kept his light under a bushel?
Robert was diagnosed with classic autism at the age of 2. He is not mentally retarded, but he is non-verbal — the part of his brain that controls communication does not function normally.
His mother, Mary Sansaricq, gives a lot of credit to the Wildwood Center in Schenectady, where Robert has been a student for seven or eight years, for helping him develop his receptive language.
“They’re experts, they know what they’re doing,” she said. “He’s well-behaved and making contributions to society.”
Robert has always been a good athlete. He likes to ski, bowl and swim. But it wasn’t until his father, Ralph Sansaricq, 53, came up with a running injury earlier this year that Robert began to take up running seriously.
When Ralph was slowly working back into form, he took Robert along with him on runs.
“We started with one mile in April. I found he had good foot placement and a good stride,” Ralph said.
So they tried the Sean French Run later that month. Ralph, a former track standout at Iona College, was amazed at how well his son did.
Next, they entered the OK 5K race in Kinderhook, where Robert shaved off more than two-and-a-half minutes, coming in at 22:58. That was followed by the Silks-and-Satins 5K in Saratoga Springs, where he finished in 22 minutes flat.
“It’s a rare thing for a Special Olympics athlete to perform at a high level with regular runners,” Ralph said. “Everyone was applauding.”
Since then he’s run in about a dozen races and has five medals to show for it.
“I start with him, get him out in front with the top runners,” Ralph said. “We’re trying to get him to stay in front. Right now his pace is 6:30 minutes a mile. The top runners are 5 or 6 minutes a mile. He’s losing ground, but holding his own.”
Foot trails have been forged through the calf-deep snow around the Sansaricq house. Ralph dubs it the “Sansa Trail.” One circuit is a quarter-mile. Together, the father and son do four to make a mile.
Ralph varies their training regimen. One day a week they do roadwork with the Kinderhook Runners Club to get used to running in a group. Another day they’ll run on the track to develop speed. Another day they’ll run on Ostrander Road to benefit from the hill work. Another day they run on forest trails to get accustomed to different surfaces.
They run 15 to 20 miles a week over four or five days. They also try to get in one swim a week, sometimes as much as 40 laps.
“Robert’s significant impediment is in speech,” Ralph said. “It affects his motivation and his ability to imitate. So it’s important for him to have a trusted coach, a running buddy and a dad, all in one.”
What language Robert does have is largely echolalic — he will repeat things that have just been said to him, but will add his own variations.
Asked if he likes swimming, he said, “Do I like swimming? Yes.”
Asked if he likes running, he said, “Do I like running? Yes!” with a telling emphasis on running.
“It appeals to him because it’s a chance to express himself physically in a way he’s comfortable with,” Ralph said. “He loves to be outdoors. He likes trails and roads, not a track. That’s a little too regimented. He prefers to run in a natural environment. He loves Columbia County — he can’t help but respond to nature in Columbia County.”
Ralph said the experience has also created a stronger bond between father and son.
“Through Robert, I volunteered to be a Special Olympics coach,” he said. Robert helped Ralph get back in shape and Robert has become more connected, more verbal and a better student at school.
“We communicate non-verbally,” Ralph said. “I sense just where Robert’s at. There’s nothing like doing an activity with your son. This ongoing process has been a joy.”
“It’s so important to keep Robert engaged, keep him part of life,” Mary said. “We tried piano. He still does adaptive skiing and he goes to Paul Newman’s Hole-in-the-Wall Gang Camp every year.”
Mary is the president of the board of Special Needs in Columbia County.
“There was no Special Olympics team in Columbia County,” she said. “We’ve been looking for a team for years. I brought it to the board of Special Needs. When we first met Mark French, it solidified.”
French recently became an administrator at Special Needs.
Special Needs is now fielding teams in softball, snowshoeing, polar plunge, bowling and track and field.
“There’s so little in this county for special needs kids,” Sansaricq said. “Most of them go to Wildwood or Kingston Children’s Annex, Devereaux or Anderson. There’s nothing in the county for students to live at home with their families and get special services.”
But the Special Olympics team is “getting bigger and bigger,” she said.
“Physical engagements make for a healthier lifestyle. Autistics can languish,” she said. “But if given the opportunity to engage, they flourish.”
In July, Ralph is hoping Robert will be the first student to represent the Wildwood School in the Corporate Challenge 3.5 mile race in Albany. Ralph will run as a representative of the New York state Department of Taxation and Finance, where he is a trainer.
The pair have other plans as well. One is to break the 20-minute 5K, another is to run the half-marathon, 13.1-mile Mohawk-Hudson River Run.