LAINGSBURG – Laingsburg cross country coach Mal Balow first noticed the young man two summers ago, during preseason workouts. He was standing near the doors to the school gym, watching quietly, keeping his distance.
“He’d peek his head in,” Balow said.
Eventually, Balow signaled for the young man to come in.
The curious silhouette from the doorway was Ray Latchaw. Ray has autism. He admits it took him a while to muster up the nerve to take the first steps in reaching his lifelong objective.
“I want to be known for something, eventually, in life,” said Ray, who is a junior, “and I figured the first step would be to do something in high school.”
Ray isn’t the fastest person on his team — his time of 29:33.6 at the first Central Michigan Athletic Conference jamboree this year is the best of his career — and he doesn’t consider himself a fierce competitor. But he’s making strides, and it is showing on the track and in the school hallways.
“I’ve seen Ray come out as a very shy high school kid looking for where he’s going to fit in to a young man that, now, is concerned with his times,” Balow said. “He wants to compete at his level. He’s become a regular Laingsburg cross country teammate.
“He was voted to Homecoming Court, and it wasn’t for pity, it was because the kids wanted him there.”
For two years, his teammates have received an up-close-and-personal lesson on perseverance.
In his first race at Laingsburg as a sophomore, with a last-place finish becoming more of a reality with each step, his teammates, all cheering him on, joined him until he crossed the finish line.
“My greatest motivation this year was Ray,” said sophomore Ryan Kingsbury, who will be one of seven Laingsburg runners competing in the Division 3 regional on Friday at Uncle John’s Cider Mill in St. Johns. “My hardest part (of running) was always the end. I would watch him and think, ‘He can do it, so why shouldn’t I be able to?’ It was just my motivation.
“It always tends to get to me that he tries as hard as he can for the last 100 yards.”
Ray runs for peace of mind. He runs to escape. He runs for the love. And, most notably, he runs to be remembered.
“Freshman year, I was just doing classes and being very antisocial with people,” he said, “until the end of the year when I decided to start training and doing more and actually wanting to make more of an impact in Laingsburg than just being somebody who didn’t do anything in high school.”
With the help of cross country, he’s become social.
And while the junior won’t be one of the seven runners competing for the Wolfpack in regionals this weekend, he’ll be right by their side. From the moment Ray popped his head into the gym more than two years ago and made the conscious effort to change something in his life, he and his teammates embarked on this journey together.
And it’s been beneficial for everyone involved.
“I wanted to do cross country for running and, also, to be more a part of the community in a sense,” Ray said. “Having it so people can see me actually do something. …No matter how small of an impact, I still have a little bit of an impact on Laingsburg Community Schools in a way.
“If there was one thing I wanted to (take) away from cross country it’s that it has helped me enjoy high school more.”