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Published on March 05, 2019

Special Olympian’s Future is Golden

Special Olympian

A.J. Spaeth’s mornings are starting a little earlier these days. Two to three days a week you’ll find him on the track. Often before sunrise.

The 18-year-old Grimsley High School student has been hard at work training for the 2019 Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi. A.J. earned a spot on Team USA after an impressive performance at the 2018 USA Special Olympics in Seattle where he won gold in the 200-meter run, silver in the 100-meter run and bronze in the running long jump.

“He was so proud of those medals,” says Valerie Spaeth, A.J.’s mom and his biggest fan. “My husband, Joe, and I are very excited for him and proud of his accomplishments.”

A.J. has Down syndrome and was just three days old when the Spaeths received the diagnosis from the physicians at Piedmont Pediatrics, a part of Cone Health Medical Group. “From the beginning they were very supportive and assured us that A.J. would be able to achieve many things. They reminded us that it may take him a little longer to learn things but with our help he could be successful,” Valerie explains.

He started competing in Special Olympics at age 8. A.J.’s parents looked into the program for their son after his doctor, Michael J. Brennan, MD, at Cone Health Pediatric Specialists (also a CHMG practice) encouraged them to do so.

“The real goal of Special Olympics is to help children develop as many of their faculties as they can. They get a real sense of fulfillment in trying hard, being a member of a team and all the things we want for every child, including those with disabilities,” says Brennan.

The Spaeths embraced the advice and A.J. has flourished as an athlete. From soccer to basketball to swimming, he stays active year-round in Special Olympics. When he started track and field, it quickly became his favorite sport. “He enjoyed it and was good at it,” Valerie says.

At a recent follow-up appointment with Brennan, A.J. proudly displayed his hardware from the USA games. It was a special moment for both doctor and patient. 

“He is absolutely quite a guy,” says Brennan. “He loves track and field and the opportunity to compete. The Spaeths want their son to be as happy, bright and good as he can be. They deserve a tremendous amount of credit for supporting him.”

Special Olympian

A.J.’s Cone Health providers have played a supporting role in his success. “Over the years, his doctors have encouraged us to keep A.J. on a healthy path with activities and a good diet. They’ve given us a lot of guidance and helped him along his journey,” adds Valerie. “Dr. Brennan is always asking A.J. what activities he is doing. He is interested in hearing how active he is.”

Brennan says the prescription for success is a simple one. “Our job is to keep him in top medical shape so he can achieve what he wants to do as an athlete.”

A.J. will compete in the 100-meter run, the 200-meter run, the 4x100-meter relay and possibly the running long jump at the World Games. “He had a great week at camp and met several athletes from different states and the coaches,” says Valerie. “A.J. is very excited to say the least.”

When he’s not training or competing, A.J. enjoys riding his bike, listening to music and playing video games. He also works at A Special Blend, a new coffee shop in Greensboro that employs individuals with development and intellectual disabilities.

“We want all of our patients to be healthy and have the same opportunities as those without disabilities,” says Brennan. “I’ve learned to never give up on children with disabilities. They can do a lot more things than you think and lead much richer lives than what many think. It just takes a little extra work and effort.”

Despite the diagnosis of Down syndrome, A.J.’s parents say that he has demonstrated an ability to succeed in so many different areas of his life. “It is not about the things he can’t do,” says Valerie. “It is about all the things he will do.”

Special Olympics provides year-round training and competitions to five million athletes across the globe and hosts the Summer World Games every two years. The 2019 games will take place March 14-21. 

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