In high school cross country, there are names for people like Andrew Gerdts - gifted, dedicated and strong. But the memory of the high school junior from Le Sueur-Henderson is seared with another name: "I just dislike the word retarded, or retard," says Andrew softly.
The boy with his name in lights on his school's electronic sign wishing him well on at state, has lived most of life defined by a word in a report: autism. "He was not actually diagnosed with autism until the summer after third grade," says Andrew's mother.
Everything had started out so happily for the bright eyed second-born son of Julie and Andrew Gerdts. But at 18 months Andrew began evolving into a child they didn't know. "He would be laying on the floor crying," recalls Julie. "He just rapidly regressed. He had been saying a few word and those ended. He just started screaming and crying all the time and throwing tantrums.
When Andrew wasn't inconsolable, his parents saw a vacancy in his face that had never existed before. "There was a child there, but there was no one behind those eyes," recalls his mother.
And it only got worse, once Andrew started school. "I actually sat alone, or when I sat by someone, they just moved away," says Andrew about his interactions with his classmates.
"Weirdo, retarded and psycho," were words often hurdled toward Andrew, who then frequently acted out in ways that drew negative attention. Andrew split time between special education and regular classes, delayed both academically and socially.
Sixth grade was probably the worst," says Julie. "He knew every day he was going to get teased and he knew he didn't have any friends to play with and he just did not want to go to school."
His father adds, "We prayed for a friend for Andrew. Please give Andrew a friend."
But as his parents prayed, no one knew at the time Andrew was already blessed.
It wasn't apparent right away; in fourth grade Andrew finished last in his class in the mile. But something told Andrew to keep running.
We all look for turning points in our lives. Andrew's came in the seventh grade in the first lap of his first track meet. His father's smile is wide as he recalls the moment. "He was running, 'Whoo!'" Steve lifts his arms skyward to imitate his son. "You know he's got his arms up, and he's turning around, 'Yeah!' and we both were looking at him. He's having a blast, for the very first time, ever."
Steve and Julie sat in the bleachers crying. "Here's all these older kids: juniors, seniors putting their arms around Andrew saying 'way to go.'"
Their son had finished that day in the middle of the pack, but the first time in his life Andrew was part of something.
"I think from there his confidence just grew," says Jeff Christ, Andrew's track and cross country coach. ''Socially that was the first time Andrew I think felt accepted."
His freshman year, Andrew qualified for the state cross country meet. A year later, as a sophomore, Andrew finished first in both his conference and section and ran to an 11th place finish at the State 2A Cross Country Meet.
But despite his success, Andrew still ends most of his meets by standing near the finish line welcoming in, with words of encouragement, every runner who finishes behind him.
"I always do this just to make people feel a little more cheered up," he explains. "He was the only one for a long time," adds his mother, "then other kids started joining and doing the same thing."
On a recent night after practice a smiling Andrew sat at a soda fountain in Henderson surrounded by his teammates. The boy with autism, who had no buddies, now seems to be everyone's friend.
"It's like God reached out and touched him with what he is now," says Andrew's father.
Which is why this fall, as a junior, when Andrew qualified for the state cross country meet for the third straight year, he was a winner before the race even started.
"No matter what, I love you and I'm proud of you," said his coach to Andrew before the start of the race.
A boisterous contingent of LeSueur-Henderson teammates and fans cheered on Andrew as he ran near the front of the pack at the St. Olaf College 5K course. Out of 160 runners who started the race, for the second year in a row, Andrew finished in 11th place.
Though she always expected big things from her son, "This is so much more than I ever thought he would achieve," said a proud Julie Gerdts as she snapped photos of her Andrew near the finish line.
There's a name for people like Andrew Gerdts: two-time, All-State.
And as Andrew accepts hugs from his classmate and team it's clear Andrew now owns a title even more meaningful: friend.
One other note, Andrew's mother recently completed a book about her son's battle autism. For more information about the book or to contact Julie Gerdts at www.julieheinks.com.