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Misericordia running coach helps teen with Down syndrome find her pace

For the second straight year, Chris Wadas and Quinn Crispell ran a 5-mile Memorial Day race. Quinn cut over five minutes off her time. Sean McKeag photo

They didn’t know until she was born. They didn’t need to know — Scott and Debbie Crispell would love their newest family member without qualification or expectation. Still, shock washed over them when doctors revealed that baby Quinn, their first and only child, had Down syndrome.

A few nervous days later, physicians had found none of the heart issues that often accompany the genetic disorder. She wouldn’t need surgery — only love and care, no different than any other baby who went home with new, uncertain parents on that day 14 years ago.

The Crispells received advice to treat her like any other child: to be patient, to ensure she was always challenged rather than held back. So they loved her and nudged her along in classrooms and on soccer fields, where she kept pace with peers lacking any chromosomal defects. Quinn grew into a middle schooler who bragged to her father about the perfect score she got on her American culture test and who competed against her classmates and herself over 1.8-mile cross country races. 

“Down syndrome isn’t what she is,” Scott Crispell says. “It’s what she has.”

***

Scott, now in his 28th year as the sports information director at Misericordia, has ensured the disorder doesn’t define her via his persistence — and a little help. Misericordia head track and field and cross country coach Chris Wadas lends some of his fleeting spare time to help Quinn run faster and gain a bit more confidence with each step and mile. Wadas’ guidance gives structure to the Crispells’ five-days-per-week father-daughter training runs, which bolster Quinn’s poise and Scott’s pride.    

“I can’t even describe how much I appreciate it,” Scott says. “I’m indebted to him.”

Scott Crispell and Chris Wadas first crossed paths before Wadas found his life’s calling. He came to Misericordia in 2001 to play soccer, but he soon became enamored with the challenges he found on tracks and trails. He went on to capture three conference championships in cross country while Crispell, in his sports information role, eagerly spread the news of Wadas’ exploits. Shortly after graduating, Wadas earned the track program’s top job and has remained in the post ever since.

Quinn came into the world and began making occasional appearances on campus while Wadas was still a student. But when she, too, turned to running in lieu of soccer, Wadas found himself in position to reciprocate the support her father had offered a decade before.

After Quinn dedicated herself to running in seventh grade — soccer at her middle school is co-ed, causing her wary parents to steer her to another sport — Scott asked Wadas if he would be willing to draw up monthly workout plans. The typical 3-mile father-daughter trots were growing monotonous, and Scott lacked the expertise to ensure Quinn tested her limits and remained engaged. Using Wadas’ prescribed workouts, Scott and Quinn hit the pavement after school on weekdays and on weekend mornings. At night they ground away at homework together — so diligently that Quinn earned a spot in the National Junior Honor Society.

“She’s got to work for everything that she gets,” Scott says. “Most people probably don’t understand the effort that goes into everything. And not just Quinn, but any kid with a disability. It opened my eyes.”

By her eighth-grade season in fall 2017, Quinn routinely finished races several minutes faster than the year prior. She doesn’t finish last, often besting dozens of other competitors in crowded fields, and has since cut her personal best in the mile to under 9 minutes, shaving a full 34 seconds off her old standard. Her proudest accomplishment, she says, is not a faster time or a new record, but earning a spot alongside classmates on her school team.

As Quinn has grown accustomed to difficult runs, Wadas has intensified her workouts. Recently, he added daunting half-mile repeats, which she tackled without complaint.

Why does she commit to the challenging workouts? Simple: “I like it,” she says.

Scott often texts Wadas when she hits a personal best or performs well in a race, and Quinn cherishes the encouraging messages they receive in return. The Crispell and Wadas families live near each other in rural Pennsylvania and often cross paths when they’re out on runs. Whenever Quinn sees Wadas in the distance, her dad reports, her stride quickens.  

And Wadas has benefited, too. He did not accept the extra task because Quinn is disabled — he works with other local runners, as well — but has reaped the rewards inherent in watching someone persevere. Citing her example, he encourages his runners at Misericordia to wring the most they can out of every run and race, to never be content with a halfhearted effort. Quinn wouldn’t.

“She has to make the mental choices every day to be able to do this,” Wadas says. “I’m impressed that she can get herself to do it every day. There’s no kid in college that can give me any kind of excuse at this point.”

***

On Memorial Day 2017, Wadas and the Crispells ran a local 5-mile race. It was a longer course than Quinn was accustomed to, but one she had trained to tackle. Wadas crossed the finish line before any other runners in the field, then doubled back to cheer on his son.  

After he saw his son, Wadas worked his way back to the Crispells and hopped on the course. Scott had been with his daughter through the first 4 miles, helping her through the slog.

Of all her training and races, Quinn says, the 5-mile distance is her least favorite. Yet when Wadas arrived, her gait quickened, as always. For him, she would test herself. He shouted encouragement as the trio sped on.

As they neared the finish line, Wadas told Quinn he would leave her side — it was up to her to finish without his help.

So she said goodbye to her coach, then turned to her father. “See you later, Dad,” she said. Goal in sight, she raced ahead of him after all of those miles together, eager to take the final few steps on her own.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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