Running down the basketball court, John Mulhall never knows when his legs will give out on him. They just do.
Mulhall's weak legs are hardly a distraction to anyone else on the floor, though. If anything, his perseverance is an inspiration to his Cabarrus Tigers teammates.
That's what Mulhall likes about being a Special Olympian.
"I don't like judgmental people," said the 21-year-old Wellington resident. "You can be yourself in Special Olympics."
For three years, Mulhall has found Special Olympics as a place where he can belong. As a sports enthusiast and a social butterfly, his participation in basketball, swimming, and soccer is a perfect fit for him.
Growing up, Mulhall played many of the recreational sports popular with youth: basketball, baseball, soccer and swimming. In his later elementary years, he played forward with the Tri-County Football Club, traveling to in-state tournaments with his club soccer team.
Mulhall continued with his year-round swim program until age 15. But the effects of his juvenile diabetes, with which he was diagnosed four year before, were too great a challenge for him to push through the water.
Around the same time he withdrew from swimming, Mulhall began experiencing learning difficulties and contracting infections at a higher rate. A neurologist ordered a biopsy in early 2006, which revealed Mulhall had a neuromuscular mitochondrial disorder, which can weaken all organs of the body.
As the symptoms became more challenging, Mulhall's academic performance started to slip as well. His parents, Patrick and Patty Mulhall, enrolled him in various public and private schools throughout his middle school and high school years.
When Mulhall's recreational and club sports playing days were all but over, a family friend named Paige Soderman recommended that Mulhall consider playing for the Cabarrus Tigers, which fields Special Olympics teams in basketball and soccer. A University City resident, Soderman plays soccer and three-on-three basketball and swims in Cabarrus County.
Patrick and Patty Mulhall were still learning about John's condition and wondered whether their son was eligible for Special Olympics. Besides, it was John's senior year at Vance High, and he was already proudly preoccupied with his role as assistant manager for the boys' basketball team.
During his three years at Vance, Mulhall was fanatical about the Cougars' football and basketball teams. One of his most memorable moments as the basketball assistant manager his senior year was traveling to Miami for the team's Christmas tournament. Mulhall credits coach Will Robinson for being the catalyst that helped him graduate in 2009.
As the Mulhalls came to understand the organization's mission, John found time to give Special Olympics track and field a try that spring and summer. Mulhall participated in the State Games and won a gold medal in the 100-meter dash. He fondly remembers staying in the dorms at N.C. State.
Adding soccer in fall 2009 and basketball in winter 2010, Mulhall and his teams have become permanent fixtures on the medal stands at state events. Because his legs have progressively gotten weaker, Mulhall replaced track and field with swimming. It has become his strongest sport. He won five golds at the 2011 state swim meet.
Mulhall's most heartfelt Special Olympic moment may have come last fall, though. While the Tigers were at the state soccer tournament in November, Mulhall was in the hospital for 10 days, overcoming pneumonia and a surgery in which his left lung had to be scraped of the resulting pus.
With their goalkeeper Mulhall in their thoughts and prayers, the Tigers pulled together and won the gold medal.
"I always count on my teammates to fill in for me," said Mulhall. "They prayed for me."
Long-term, Patty Mulhall said, John's prognosis will probably worsen, but there's no way to predict a timetable. In the short term, Mulhall will give his all as the Tigers basketball team will participate in the state tournament March 3 in Charlotte.
How well Mulhall's legs will hold up is unpredictable. They may fail him from time to time.
But his teammates never will.