Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Grasso Tech's Sugar Distances Self From Asperger's

Grasso Tech's Sugar Distances Self From Asperger's
Grasso Tech Senior Greg Sugar

Senior Greg Sugar is having a record season as a distance runner for Grasso Tech in Groton.

(JOHN WOIKE / HARTFORD COURANT / February 9, 2009)

GROTON - Before Greg Sugar takes his place in line at the bottom of the hill, he jokes with a group of teammates. He smiles and laughs. They smile and laugh back.

He then turns his attention toward his coach, Jeremy Beebe, perched on a rock halfway up the incline, and begins his ascent.

Four years ago, Sugar, now 18 and the king of Grasso Tech running, was nowhere near the top of the hill.

He has Asperger's syndrome, a disorder under the spectrum of autism that affects his ability to communicate and interact with others. It can cause children to become isolated from their peers.

"I'm not as socially outgoing as a lot of people," he said. "I'd say I've gotten better with it."

The quiet boy who entered the small Groton school is now a more confident young man who will compete for the Roger Williams University cross country and outdoor track teams beginning in the fall, and those around him are pointing to one thing — running.

"It's really given him his identity in the school," Beebe said. "When people walk down the hallway, they look at him and say, 'That's the kid that runs fast.'"

Sugar was in elementary school in Pawcatuck when his parents, Mark and Kathy, took him to see a specialist at Yale who diagnosed him with Asperger's.

"It made it a lot easier when you see that your kid is not like everybody else, and you know there's a reason for it," Mark said.

Although the diagnosis was a relief, treatment isn't simple. There are behavior sessions and special considerations at school, but not much can change the misunderstandings among young students.

"There were a lot of kids that didn't understand him," teammate and childhood friend Jon Adcock said. "It was hard for him going through that."

Sugar's alternate therapy began one day during fifth-grade gym class, when he and his classmates were instructed to run a mile. He still remembers it perfectly.

"I ran it in 8:16," he said. "That sparked my interest in running."

Sugar, whose father ran cross country at Maine Maritime, signed up for the team at Pawcatuck Middle School, but did not excel as a runner.

And at school, there was still discomfort between Sugar and most of his peers. Mark still remembers chaperoning Greg's eighth-grade class trip to Washington, D.C.

"There was one boy that was his friend and wanted to go off with the other kids," he said. "I didn't blame him, but it kind of hurt my heart to see him sitting by himself."

So, on his own, Greg made the decision to attend Grasso Tech after attending an open house. The choice would let Greg break free from the pack, but not right away. Asperger's still caused him to struggle. Beebe, then the girls cross country coach, recalled his first year knowing Greg.

"I remember him not being able to make eye contact," Beebe said. "I remember him not being able to say more than four or five words [to someone] in a sequence."

But on the track and the course, Sugar got better and better, winning the Constitution State Conference cross country championship as a sophomore. Those who were used to looking back at him were now staring at his heels.

"Fifth through eighth grade I was a faster runner," Adcock said. "Then I get to high school and he just kind of blows by me."

Now in his senior season, Sugar has done things no other Grasso Tech runner has done.

On Tuesday he set the CSC championship meet record in the 3,200 (10:28). His 4:47 mile time is a program-best, and beat his father's high school time of 4:50. Sugar's best 5K time is 17:19, and he placed second in the CSC cross country championships his junior and senior seasons.

In this year's outdoor season he has posted state qualifying times in the 3,200, 1,600 (4:47.3) and 800 (2:07.1). He'll run all three at Tuesday's Class S meet, and in the 3,000 steeplechase on June 16-17.

"He's definitely the best distance runner here, ever," Beebe said.

As Sugar distanced himself from the field, he became closer to his peers. He's still somewhat quiet, but can talk forever on topics such as running, video games and heavy metal. His wry sense of humor has also become apparent to those around him.

"The change has been so dramatic," Beebe said.

Mark Sugar agreed.

"[Running has helped him] in two ways," he said. "Overall sense of accomplishment and confidence. The kids at Grasso really like him."

Now Sugar walks through the halls with his head high and is looking forward to a class party and a summer of playing video games and jamming guitar.

"And," he said, "obviously run."

1 comment:

Adair said...

Another testament to the power of running.....the great equalizer! Thanks for posting this Jypsy! Way to go Greg!