ANDERSONVILLE — Peter Ruiz competes in nine sports for the Special Olympics, including wheelchair races, but come Sunday he's taking on a much greater challenge — the Chicago Marathon 2015.
Ruiz, a soft-spoken 32-year-old from Andersonville, said he has suffered from seizures since he was a child and has had roughly 500 surgeries, including one to have a shunt inserted in his head that left him comatose. While the procedures left him in a wheelchair with braces on his knees, they've had little effect on his psyche, he said.
"I take medications for it. I'm used to it all the time. I've always had a lot of operations and I'm used to that," said Ruiz, before adding bluntly: "I'm alive."
Earlier this year, Ruiz was awarded one of six runner/rider slots in a new entry category for the Chicago Marathon, which allows wheelchair riders with accompanying runners to compete among the 40,000 marathon participants. He'll be completing the course with Peter Kline, a 62-year-old marathon veteran who ran six marathons last year, pushing a child with permanent or life-threatening disabilities in each.
Kline, a financial adviser with Bank of America Merrill Lynch, which sponsors the marathon, came up with the idea several years ago as a way to give back and make the marathons seem more "meaningful," he said.
"So, I wrote letters to children's hospitals and the Make-A-Wish Center with the idea that maybe there was a child or young adult with a disability that could enjoy the experience of running a marathon, but maybe not do the entire event themselves," said Kline, who first began running marathons at age 52.
As for Ruiz, he credits his athletic prowess to Rose River, a coach who has helped him train through special recreation programming at Welles Park: "The first time I played any sport I was nervous and I didn't know what I was doing at the time, and she showed me, [then] I figured it out," he said.
River will also compete in the marathon Sunday, though Ruiz will be the first athlete from the Welles Park special recreation program to do so.
"I used to (and still do) play basketball, play hockey, I play bocce, I do shot put, I do football, I do wheelchair races. Oh, and I do tennis. All the sports I listed, she helped me train in," he said, adding that both individual and team sports have helped him improve his skills.
Ruiz is a graduate of Northside Learning Center, 3730 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue, and works at Gateway to Learning, which opened in 1974 to provide academic and prevocational education to people with special needs from ages 3 to 21, according to its website.
Last year, the Chicago Marathon didn't have a division for rider/runner teams, but "to their credit" they added the category this year, Kline said.
"In a lot of situations where you're dealing with a disability the first answer you get is 'no.' So you have to fight through that. 'You can't do this, you can't do that, you're not accepted here. There's not enough room for you, we don't have the right elevators,'" he said. "It's a tough road for these families and these kids. I'm trying to do what I can to expose the fact that you can do more and experience more than people give you credit for."
While Kline knows he's in for a bit of a challenge with Ruiz, who has a good 20 pounds on him, he's been preparing by pushing a cart with extra weight, known as a jogger, to help train. He's expecting difficulties with the 26-mile course, which isn't always flat, as he remembers it, but is confident that the two will finish around the 5½-hour mark.
"We're finishing with people who are really struggling, and they get motivated and can latch onto it. 'If you guys can make it, we can make it too,' and that's sort of the mantra: inclusion and completion," he said. "But this isn't about me and this isn't about the organization. It's about Peter [Ruiz] and what he gets out of it."
What Ruiz will get out of the marathon won't be known until a good six hours after the race begins Sunday, but there is at least one thing he'll be bringing to Grant Park — his confidence.
"They chose me because I'm a good athlete," Ruiz said, allowing a smile to creep in as his friends stretched at Welles Park in the background. "I can run fast. I'm only in the chair for seizure problems."
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