Athletes inspire us every day, but you don't always have to see them to feel their impact.
Northfield High School freshman Sage Romero was virtually unknown on the high school cross-country scene when the season started, but by the end, his influence had stretched well across the state.
"It's not just my [runners] that he's inspiring. A lot of teams in this area are looking at him as an inspiration," Northfield cross-country coach Patrick Thornton said of Sage. "The kids are always there cheering for him."
Sage was starting a new school this year, and in the past, his parents always liked to have him participate in some type of group activity so he could meet new students and become a part of his community.
"Mr. Porter, the athletic director at the school, called me and said, 'I have Sage. He's autistic and he wants to be your [team] manager," Thornton said. "I said, 'I don't want him to be manager. I want him to be part of the team.' And so, I talked with Sage, and had him start coming and running with the kids. Before I knew it, he was practicing with the team and running meets."
Over the span of the fall season, Sage made strides -- both literal and figurative.
"The first couple of races, [Sage] had to have ear plugs in, because of the starting gun. Now he's saying, 'I don't want them in. I want to experience everything as it is. His first couple of practices, he had to walk a majority of the warm-up, which was just a lap around the school. Now, he's running it with the kids," Thornton said.
With his autism, Sage's father Jason runs with his son at practice and in meets -- unless, that is, he's running one of his ultra-marathons. Jason has been running for two decades. He has run well over 100 marathons and half-marathons, a handful of 100 mile races, and this past year, Jason ran across America (50 miles a day for 60 days straight, Los Angeles to New York). Even if Sage didn't know it until this year, he was born to run.
"I never imagined that any of my children would like to run. They always looked at my running as being extreme and being something that frankly, they didn't want any part of. Obviously, I would never push anything like that upon them, but I always tried to expose them to different opportunities and different activities so they could find what they are passionate about," Jason said.
It seems, Sage found that very passion in his father's sport. When they run together, Jason is a support person for his son. Sage sets the pace, Jason carries his water. But the father and son compliment each other's weaknesses as well. Sometimes on the cross-country courses, Jason relies on Sage to tell him of potential obstacles. Jason can't always see them -- because he's legally blind.
"I have what's called retinitis pigmantosa, and it's a degenerative retinal condition," he said. "Basically, my retina is dying from the outside in."
When Sage was first diagnosed with autism, Jason says doctors gave them a prognosis similar to the one he received about his eyes as a teenager -- give up. Instead, the two have found a new type of therapy in running.
"The common factor that running has given me and Sage is that it's given us an outlet for those personal times and personal moments when you just need to know that you can. It's done that for both of us," Jason said. "In the past two months that Sage has been running, his life has changed. Before, he would go up to his room and have an iPad or not necessarily be as engaged. [Running] has been another factor in his life that has allowed him to be more engaged with his sisters, his mother, his family and friends."
"[Running] is just another venue for him to be proud of who he is, and know that he can accomplish something that a lot of people didn't think he could accomplish."
Since the story was shot, Sage completed his first ever half-marathon with his father by his side.
"Everyone who gets to know Sage, they're just absolutely blessed," Jason said. "I always say, I couldn't ask for a better son. Sage is an angel."