Just five months ago, Mount Pleasant High cross country runner Hayden Leonard was in a wheelchair, doctors unable to diagnose or treat a condition that was causing his legs to spasm and shake, sometimes uncontrollably.
Leonard, just coming off the basketball team, was planning to spend his summer training for a senior year that he hoped would be his best cross country and track seasons in his final year in a Tigers’ uniform.
But last February, everything changed. Leonard ran two distance events at an early-season track meet and his legs gave out.
That led to a series of doctor visits, frustrations and a long, painful road back.
“I had just run the mile and two-mile, and was taking my shoes off, when my legs started shaking and kept shaking and then cramping,” Leonard recalls. “I thought the cramps were normal because I had just started running a lot again after (Mount Pleasant) basketball season. But the next morning, I was still cramping in my legs and calves, and I thought that was kind of weird. I went to the Mount Pleasant athletic trainer (Steve Ashby), who had me stretch, ice me down and bike for two hours, but nothing we did helped. I knew something was wrong.”
The Search for Answers
For the next few weeks, Hayden and his parents, Sara and Derek Leonard, tried to figure out what was going on with his legs.
At first, Sara Leonard said they addressed it as an “electrolyte issue,” and tried to hydrate her son with anything and everything they believed would help, including rest.
But Leonard’s leg issue kept getting worse.
Leonard saw doctor after doctor in the Concord area, and couldn’t find any meaningful answers or solutions.
He had blood tests, spinal tests, CAT scans and more.
Then in May, Leonard was confined to wheelchair.
“No matter what doctors we saw or talked to, we got no answers,” Sara Leonard said. “Everything came back normal, but his condition kept getting worse, with bad cramps turning into seizures, one leg at a time. Hayden took all kinds of medicines, but nothing was really helping him.”
Leonard, who had always depended on his legs, grew frustrated.
“I was really mad at first, thinking why is this happening to me, why now?” he said. “But I tried to focus on the positives. I tried to focus on what I could do, not what I couldn’t do. Being in a wheelchair was annoying, but I kind of got used to it and tried to make the best of it. But people kept asking me what was wrong and I didn’t know what to say.”
After months of searching for answers, Sara Leonard got a glimmer of hope when she found out about a group of doctors at the Mayo Clinic, who treat patients with symptoms similar to what Hayden was experiencing.
Sara Leonard set up an appointment for Hayden to go to the Rochester, MN facility July 30 to Aug. 3.
A New Hope
From the minute Hayden Leonard started his four-day visit to the Mayo Clinic, the whole feeling around his condition changed.
The first doctor to see Leonard asked him, “What do you want to be able to do?”
Hayden replied that he wanted to run. The doctor replied: “Oh, that won’t be a problem.”
“The minute they said Hayden was going to be able to run again, his whole demeanor changed,” Sara Leonard said.
“It felt great to hear a doctor say that I would be able to run,” Leonard said. “They (Mayo Clinic) not only believed they could help me; but they diagnosed me, and had a program that could help me. I believed in them from the start and believed what they were telling me.”
The doctors at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed Leonard with “Functional Gait Disorder.”
According to neurosymptoms.org, Functional Gait Disorder is an “abnormal movement or positioning of the body, due to the nervous system not working properly.”
Doctors at the Mayo Clinic also discovered Leonard would be a fit for their Behavior Shaping Therapy (BeST) program, where they help “retrain the brain to run.”
Leonard was accepted into the BeST program, and was able to spend a week there before the 2018-19 school year would start.
While Leonard spent most of his June, July and August working to find a solution to his condition, he was also determined to make the most of his summer, like a usual rising high school senior would do.
Leonard didn’t miss a practice or workout most of the spring and summer, despite not being able to physically participate in the sessions. Hayden would come, with his boom box speaker, playing music for his teammates and encouraging them throughout the workouts.
“Hayden has been kind of like an assistant coach the whole time he hasn’t been able to run,” Mount Pleasant cross country and track coach Darrell “Doc” Wells said. “It’s funny, a lot of his teammates and classmates, come to practice and look at Hayden and say ‘What’s up, coach.’ Hayden has been a major part of this team throughout everything and that’s meant a lot to him and his teammates.”
One of the highlights of the summer for Leonard and his Mount Pleasant cross country team was their trip to Brevard’s Distance Runner Camp, July 8-14.
Despite his condition and being in a wheelchair, Leonard wasn’t about to miss the week with his teammates.
Leonard attended all the events and sessions with his team, and became one of the most popular participants in the camp.
The night before the final day of camp, Leonard told Coach Wells that he was going to make the three-mile run, known as “John’s Rock,” the following day.
Coach Wells and others applauded Leonard’s enthusiasm, but didn’t think him running up and down a mountain was a good idea.
But Leonard persisted and arranged for Hayden to run the last mile with his teammates, once they came down from the mountainous part of the run.
“I don’t know how he did it, but Hayden ran the last almost mile of that course (John’s Rock) on sheer will,” Wells said. “Hayden collapsed to the ground, as he crossed the finish line with his legs spasming out.”
Leonard says the run was well worth it.
“I didn’t want to just be the guy in the wheelchair,” Leonard said. “I wanted to push myself and see what I could do. Once I took off sprinting that last mile (John’s Rock), it felt pretty good to push through the pain.”
Back to the Mayo Clinic
Leonard returned to the Mayo Clinic on Aug. 20, eager to attend the intense training sessions despite knowing a lot of them would be painful.
The Mayo Clinic doctors put him through a rigorous week of four-session days, two before lunch and two after. Leonard also had homework to do daily, during his lunch break and after he was done for the day.
Leonard responded well to the treatment and training, learning multiple ways to help retrain his brain to run with simple exercises.
On the third day, Leonard’s homework was to take a 30-minute run near the Hilton Garden Inn hotel that his family was staying in.
Leonard was ecstatic.
He ran 2.99 miles in 30 minutes, running on a trail that passed by the Zumbro River.
“I was smiling the whole time I was running,” Leonard said. “It wasn’t the best time I’ve ever run, but it felt like the best run I’ve ever had, because I back out there, doing what I love to do.”
Back on course
On Aug. 28, just three days after Leonard returned from the Mayo Clinic, he ran in the pre-Rocky River conference preseason meet at Frank Liske Park in Concord.
While Leonard finished 41st, his time didn’t matter. He was competing again.
“It just felt amazing to be back running with my team,” he said. “I just didn’t want to stop.”
Said Wells: “We didn’t think that Hayden would run this (cross country) season, but we are thrilled to death that he is able to run. Most of this spring and summer, he’s been in a wheelchair. But now he’s back. It feels like a miracle. He worked really hard to get back, when a lot of people thought he couldn’t do it, but he wouldn’t give up.”
Leonard says he couldn’t have done any of this without the support of his family, the Mount Pleasant community and even other schools and teams, who have been with him every step of the way.
Nothing exemplified that support, Wells said, more than the West Stanly track team, which honored Leonard at the Rocky River conference preseason meet on Aug. 28. The team presented him with a banner reading “Heeling for Hayden,” plus T-shirts and about $300 in donations from the West Stanly/Oakboro community to Leonard and his family.
“The whole West Stanly thing surprised me, I didn’t know about it,” Leonard said. “It means a lot to have so many people, supporting me and cheering me on.”
Running into the Future
Family, friends and teammates will be the first to tell you that Leonard has kept an extremely positive attitude throughout this whole process. Even when he was in a wheelchair, he could be found turning “wheelies,” at school or decorating his wheelchair with lights at the Mount Pleasant prom.
While Hayden Leonard’s future college destination as a student and athlete is yet to be determined, the Mount Pleasant senior still hopes to be able run cross country and track at the next level.
But, no matter what his future on and off the track holds, Hayden Leonard has learned lessons that will last him for a lifetime.
“You can’t quit or give up, because if you do, what do you have left?” Leonard said. “I wouldn’t be talking to you, or I’d still be stuck in that wheelchair, if I had given up. But, I was determined to get back.
“I hope to be an example for people going through tough times to keep going hard, but also to listen to your doctors. I wanted to get back so bad, that even before I went to the Mayo Clinic, in my mind, I was going to run cross-country (this fall), even if I had to do it with my legs spasming. You can never give up.”
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