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Track helps Spring Grove trio find their purpose

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Fans gathered thick against the fence along the Spring Grove High track.

The girls' team crowded near the finish line.

They were in position to watch, of all things, the backups run the 200 meters.

This has become Tommy Salter's race.

He's one of three learning disabled athletes on Spring Grove's team. Longtime members Anthony Granruth and Kyle Williams run each race with Tommy, usually pulling ahead of him quickly and finishing a few seconds off the lead.

But Tommy, 17, is new to the sport, and his challenges are greater. He's been diagnosed with non-verbal autism and usually only says a word or two when prompted. He does not speak in sentences or conversationally.

He had never been part of a team.

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And yet so many around the school and the community have embraced his unusual display of perseverance, a kind of personal awakening.

Like on that recent weekday when the clouds and rain cleared just in time. Tommy rounded the final turn of that final 200 meters heat alone and forever behind the others, locked into his pace like a metronome. He doesn't so much run as he jogs with short, steady steps.

The crowd, including fans and coaches from Red Lion and William Penn, urged him on, and he looked up and smiled as he passed by.

Some of the loudest cheers were for the slowest runner.

"What's it like?" his father, Tom Salter Sr., said after watching the celebration play out once more. "Sometimes I look back eight, 10 years ago, and doctors said all he would do is sit on a swing for the rest of his life."

The track team has "really given him a lot of independence, but it's more than that. He feels like he belongs."

• • •

Everywhere Tommy went during practice, Anthony talked to him, ran next to him, guided him.

Every so often, Kyle swooped in to check on both, chattering non-stop.

Anthony and Kyle have overcome attention and focusing problems in school and sports. Anthony, 18, plans on taking culinary classes at Harrisburg Area Community College after graduating this spring. Kyle, 19, expects to enroll in a work/study program in New Oxford.

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"Anthony has always been one to help the teacher," said Janet Senft, a personal care assistant who works with all three boys at Spring Grove. "He's very organized. He's meticulous in everything he does. He wants to do everything right, sometimes overdoes it right."

While Anthony is the low-key helper, Kyle is the blast of energy. He flits from one track athlete to the next. One minute he's pulling hurdles off the track, the next he's pushing a grocery cart full of starting blocks the length of the field.

It seems perfectly timed that he and Anthony are able to help introduce Tommy to the team. They know the ups and downs of adjusting, assimilating and pushing their limits.

"We're all different. There's different people out there who have problems," Kyle said. "I don't care who's on the team, we're all family, we're all friends, we work together."

"We're family," Anthony said, nodding.

Tommy is still finding his way in these new surroundings, even more difficult with such limited speech. His first word as a young child? Not Mom or Dad but "cheetah." Out of nowhere, he would break his silence with a phrase such as, "flamingos in Botswana" — then point to the exact location of the African country on a globe.

Animals became his comfort and expertise. As he got older, parents Melissa and Tom Salter pushed to find new ways to expand his learning and environment. That's why they approached the Spring Grove school administration about allowing Tommy to try a team sport, to break the monotony of riding his bike and skateboard after school.

They agreed on track and field

First, he had to master basics most take for granted, like staying in a running lane and not stopping before the finish line.

A track meet, in particular, is a proving ground for Tommy's patience and breaking barriers. He becomes antsy with so much downtime between the 100 and 200 meter events, often pacing the end zone area of the infield, silently watching everything swirl around him.

Watch: Spring Grove's Tommy Salter finishes the 100-meter dash
Tommy Salter has non-verbal autism, and is one of three athletes on Spring Grove's track and field team with a learning disability. Ty Lohr, GameTimePA
Ty Lohr,

Senft makes sure he doesn't wander away. She helps him put on his running shoes. She's also his personal coach. She guides him through stretching exercises and running drills, from the beginning to the end of practice and meets.

Even after just two months, his parents say he is happier and more content and follows directions better at home. He has settled. He doesn't hum loudly or flap his arms and hands much anymore to burn off anxiety and extra energy, a common autistic behavior.

He's beginning to take cues from his coaches and other kids.

He's hunting for words more often.

He's even getting a little faster.

"I think what it is, you turn the light bulb on. You find the switch and turn it on," his mother said. "He finds a team and is accepted for whoever he is. There's an acceptance factor you don't think these kids need, because they're non-verbal, but they do."

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Joining the track team opened a door for Anthony and Kyle, their parents say, in terms of confidence and social skills. It may well open one even wider for Tommy.

"He's always smiling, everyone's so encouraging to him," said sprinter Abby Erlemeier, a Spring Grove senior. "Because if you saw him in the hallway most kids would be like, 'Who's that?' But now he's on the track team, people know who he is. I hope he gets the feeling we're all his friend, we're all supporting him now."

As Tommy chugged down the homestretch of that 200, the applause and cheers rose up through Spring Grove's stadium.

After finishing, he fist-bumped Senft and was congratulated over and again by teammates. He smiled each time, before quickly finding his father for the ride home.

"I think he has helped bring a community together," his mother said. "Look how (the track team) interacts with him, how they high-five him. This is a kid you normally wouldn't be allowed to touch.

"Getting him on a team has given him a purpose," she said. "Everyone needs a purpose."