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That Kid.
By Tom Demerly.

Henry Rides a little bike in our new store


You’ve seen kids like this before so you know what I am talking about.

I don’t know the polite words to describe this kid so I’ll tell it like it is: This kid is fat. I’m talking 210 pounds and about 5’5”. Call it anything you like, but that is a fat kid. Thirteen years old. Add to his tub of lard physique the fact that he is pretty darn wretched looking. Bad acne, hasn’t had a decent haircut in months and dresses like he gets his clothes from a thrift shop. You know the type. It looks like he never gets outside. Spends a lot of time in the basement; ugly, dumpy fat kid.

It goes without saying that this kid can’t play sports. Gym class at Junior High is a nightmare for him. He is awful looking in shorts; a bathing suit is out of the question (the acne on his back is worse than on his face). He is always last to be picked for the team- if he is picked at all. He never scores a goal, never hits a home run, never makes a touchdown. When they have tests to see how many push-ups he can do, he really can’t even do one properly. He’s a human jelly roll with pizza flesh. Awful looking kid.

So this kid does anything he can to get out of gym class. I mean anything. He tells the teacher he is sick. He hides in the corner of the Library, fakes a limp. Whatever it takes to avoid the humiliation and abuse of the pool deck, the running track, the baseball diamond and worse yet- the locker room- he’ll do it. As long as he doesn’t have to take gym. The girls are on the field at the same time as the boys. At 13, that only makes it worse.

Basically, this kid is a slacker. You only have to look at him for a second to tell he probably has rotten eating habits too. Junk food, ice cream, no exercise, no fresh air. The kid’s a mess.

The one thing this kid does have going for him is he reads a lot. Useless stuff mostly- Army stories, stuff about mountain climbing, animals, sharks. The kid knows a lot about useless stuff. So even that is a waste of time.

Some hard work and some exercise is what this kid needs. But being a lazy, uncoordinated, zit-faced fat-ass there is a slim chance you’ll ever get any work out of this kid. He just sits in the basement doing nothing. That’s a big problem with kids these days- they just sit around too much. They expect the world to entertain them.

One day the kid gets called to the counselor’s office at school. It has gone far enough. He has missed so much gym class and done so poorly at phys ed they are putting him in a special education class. That’s right, a special ed class. The short bus, the “speds”. Hey, I know it sounds bad- but it’s true. Let’s call a spade a spade.

In this special ed class there is a kid in a wheelchair, a kid with one arm, a kid with, well, whatever the politically correct term for “retarded” is these days. Then there is this kid I’m telling you about- the fat zit-faced kid. There are about fifteen kids in this class, all of them have something wrong with them. Basically this is a class of rejects. No point in mincing words people.

The guy teaching the special ed class is a phys ed teacher named Mr. Newman. He is a tall, quiet, fit looking fellow. His hair is neatly trimmed and precisely parted. He dresses in the uniform of a physical education teacher. There is a pocket on the chest of his polo shirt, a stop watch in the pocket on a string around his neck along with two pens. On the other side of the shirt is a patch that says “President’s Council on Physical Fitness”. He wears glasses. Most of the time he is holding a clip board with some type of roster on it. Mr. Newman volunteered to take the special ed gym class. He has a reputation around the school as a tough teacher.

Now he gets put into a special education gym class so this is about the worst possible thing that can happen. It’s official: He’s a sped. The other kids have been telling him this for a few years now. Now the school just made it official.

Welcome to class- Sped.

Class starts and Mr. Newman addresses the group assembled before him: The dregs of the school. The rejects. He tells them, “You each must come to class every day. If you cannot come, I need to see a doctor’s note. A note from your parents won’t work. If they have questions, have them phone the school office. In this class you will work hard, and you will see results.”

The fat kid, the kid with one arm, the kid in the wheelchair, this group had heard it all before. Mr. Newman continued:

“Most of you have never done a hard day’s work in your life. You should come to my farm, there you would do a hard days work. In here, you will work. If you can’t run, you’ll walk. If you can’t walk, you’ll swim, If you can’t walk or swim, you’ll lift weights. You will always be doing something in this class, but you will never be doing nothing.”

The fat kid had heard this before. It doesn’t work. Really, nothing does. He’s trying to figure out a way to get out of this.

A few weeks pass and the kid has been forced to go to gym class. He walked, and then he jogged. He swam, dove off the diving board. With no one else around, just the few guys in the class, there wasn’t anyone to be embarrassed in front of. They never picked teams in this class. These fellows did not make fun of each other. They just each did their thing. They were individuals.

What Mr. Newman promised them did start to happen. Things did start to change. The fat kid could now do five push-ups non stop and run an entire lap of the 440 yard track without stopping once. That meant the fat kid could run an entire quarter mile without stopping.

So, what Mr. Newman told the guys at the beginning of the class was true: You work hard, you see results.

Yeah, this fat kid was a mess, but things were looking better. There was improvement.

The class continued for the next year and by then the fat kid couldn’t get enough of it. It was the one thing in his life where, if he really applied some effort, he saw results. The reading and writing came easy to him. He always did well with that. His sister taught him to enjoy books. She lived in Africa now. He read books about Africa. One was by Ernst Hemmingway called “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macambre” It told the story of a guy beat down by the people around him who finally had the strength to stand up for himself. He kept reading and writing and running and exercising.

Two years later the kid got a job sweeping the floor and taking out the trash in a little Bike Shop in Detroit called Schuman’s Schwinn Cyclery. The owner, Randy Schuman, lent him a bike. He rode it back and forth to work after school. He kept riding, kept running. What Mr. Newman told him stuck with him: “Work hard, you’ll get results.”

Four years later the kid actually ran a marathon all by himself. Imagine that, this fat kid who was over 200 pounds and only 5’5” was now about 5’9” and less than 150 pounds. He actually finished a marathon. Along the way he remembered what Mr. Newman said, “If you work hard, you will see results.” At the end of the marathon he got a finisher’s medal. From special ed gym class to marathon finisher.

Flash forward about ten years. The kid had been in the Army, gone to college, set physical training records in the Army for the fastest 15 mile road march with a 30 pound pack and graduated as the Company Honor Graduate. He also finished the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. Nothing would stop the fat kid anymore. Now his skin was clear and he was 145 pounds and 5’9” tall.

Ten more years and he had done over a hundred triathlons, climbed mountains, raced in the jungle and in the Antarctic and the Sahara Desert. He had parachuted out of jet planes and SCUBA dived with sharks. He skied, snowboarded, skateboarded and surfed. He had been to Europe to race bicycles for a real bike racing team and won his state bicycle championships four times.

Eventually this kid who had been so fat they put him in a special ed gym class had been around endurance sports and bicycles so long he opened his own bike shop. No one remembered he was the fat, ugly kid. Everyone forgot about how he was in the special ed gym class. Everyone except him. He thought of it every time he went out to train. The thought of how far he had come and how hard it had been but that it had finally worked kept him going. He was never going back. This was the one thing in the kid’s life that had always given back to him when he gave to it. If he worked hard, he saw results. It was what Mr. Newman told him.

By now about 32 years had gone by. He’d raced on every continent now, all seven. Climbed the highest mountain on three. He had done some of the longest adventure races in the world- The Eco-Challenge, The Raid Gauloises and the Marathon des Sables. At the World Championship of Desert Racing in Jordan he was the top American finisher. He finished over 200 triathlons, five Ironmans.

Almost every single day, and always during tough races around the world, the fat kid thought back to his gym teacher, Mr. Newman: “If you work hard, you will see results”. So he made it a point to never give up, no matter what. When it was hard, he worked harder. Mr. Newman said so.

It’s hard to imagine what would have happened to this kid had he not had the good fortune of crossing paths with Mr. Newman, the gym teacher. Mr. Newman was the first person to really take an interest in his well-being. The first person to tell him something that was really true. The first person to hold him accountable for the work he needed to do to be better. If it hadn’t been for Mr. Newman the kid would have never amounted to much. He was lucky he had been put in that special ed gym class. As it turned out, that teacher and that class gave him the direction he needed to define himself and decide the course of his adult life- from overweight 13 year old to experienced endurance athlete. The Dearborn Public School system was behind the idea for the special education gym class that gave this kid a new outlook on life, one that would last his entire life. If the things we achieve in life are tied directly to our self image and self esteem then the Dearborn Public School scored a victory with this one boy. They changed his life for the better; put him on the right track.

So it looked like the fat kid was completely gone, at least from the outside. But the fat kid never really was completely gone. There was always a little of that fat kid left inside him, for better and for worse, no matter how far he had traveled or how much he had raced. There was always the fat kid in the special ed gym class inside him. And also in his mind Mr. Newman’s voice was always there to reassure him that if he worked hard, he would see results.

Especially when the kid eventually sat down and wrote this.


© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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