It’s a gloomy Thursday afternoon at Timberline High School and the cross country team has just wrapped its run for the day, a short jog down to the Chevron gas station nearby. The workout load is light because the Blazers have a race coming up in a couple days, the Three Course Challenge at Camp Rilea.
Following the run is a weights session, where athletes pair up with each other and move from station to station. Senior Hunter Aman and freshmen Jarrod Flannery and Emmit Douglas gather in a group. Joining them is Jamie Sullivan, an English teacher at the school.
Sullivan is also Douglas’ guide. Douglas, 14, is blind. And to run as part of the team, Sullivan links arms with Douglas and runs by his side.
On this day, the first station for the group is the shoulder press. Douglas sits down on the bench with Aman standing behind him and Flannery to his right. Sullivan is in front and brings down the bar to Douglas, who then proceeds to complete the workout on his own.
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The trio — Aman, Flannery and Sullivan — work as a unit. And from station to station, the three of them are by Douglas’ side to visualize the scene for him.
“I’ve gotta give it to Emmit,” says Aman, who is Timberline’s top boy’s varsity runner. “He’s always pushing himself. He always tries to better himself. And people look at me and think, ‘Oh you work hard, you’re the hardest worker on the team. You’re the best runner.’
“I think, really, Emmit is the best runner on the whole team. Because he pushes himself and goes out there — even when it’s hard for him — and works every single day. He always has a positive attitude. He takes on challenges that are really hard, and it’s amazing to see him do great at it.”
It’s a sentiment that is shared across the team.
Flannery has known Douglas since their days together at Komachin Middle School, and he immediately asked coach Kevin Gary if he could work with Douglas when he joined the Timberline team. The two also are in band together — Douglas plays the clarinet.
“He handles so much by himself,” Flannery said. “Me and him met in band — he reads braille music and he memorizes every single piece of music. This kid is amazing. It’s just spectacular.”
Douglas is an avid gamer too — he uses the audio of the game play to guide himself. Madden, NBA 2K and Fortnite are among his favorites.
Douglas, who was born without any vision, first began running in the second grade when he was on the track team at the School for the Blind. He joined the cross country team in seventh grade.
“What motivates me is the other teammates, the varsity people, they’re fast and they’re pushing it,” Douglas said. “That motivates me to get faster.”
Coach Gary first heard of Douglas two years ago when Douglas was at Komachin, and Gary was able to watch a couple of his races to get a sense of what to expect.
Quickly, Gary developed a deep respect for Douglas.
“When I’m having difficulties in my life, I look at Emmit and say to myself, ‘Wow, that kid motivates me,’” Gary said. “He sets goals, he’s very determined. Each race, he has something to shoot for that he’s trying to prove. It’s not just ‘finishing the race.’”
Sullivan, his guide, is new to the job. Early in the season, the person who had originally volunteered to be Douglas’ running guide injured herself during a race.
In stepped Sullivan, who used to run marathons but had drifted away from the sport.
“It’s so motivating,” Sullivan said. “Because he works so hard, he makes me work harder. Really, (he’s) an example to a lot of these kids that the only barriers that they have are the ones they set for themselves.
“He’s really inspiring, because he’s very competitive within himself. He wants to get faster — his goal is to make varsity by the end of sophomore year. He’s always asking me about his pace. What’s pretty remarkable about him is that he really doesn’t have any quit in him. He just keeps on pushing himself.”
The way the team rallies behind Douglas does not go unnoticed. And Douglas appreciates the efforts.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “Everyone is supportive in a different way. Some of them are more nice, some want me to go faster, some of them are just glad I’m doing it.”
Douglas has run in four meets so far this season, with two coming at the same distance (two miles). For his first race at the Timberline 2-Mile Jamboree, he ran 21:55.3. A week later at Lake Isabella State Park, he ran 21:07.2 — nearly a minute faster.
A particular moment during the Sept. 12 race at Lake Isabella has stuck with Sullivan. It’s something she called one of the “coolest moments in my 30 years of running.”
Coming into the last half-mile, the pair were approaching a long and easy downhill. Sullivan told Douglas to widen his stride and pick up the pace, which he did.
She then turned to Douglas and asked if he felt like he was flying.
“Yes,” he said with a big smile on his face. He was running in the clouds.