As AJ Spaeth rounded the corner, he could feel his opponent next to him, air whooshing past them both as they sprinted. Neck and neck, they very quickly began closing the distance between them and the finish line. But instead of feeling nervous or second guessing himself, Spaeth pushed even harder just like his role model, Usain Bolt.
“It was like kicking fire off my shoes,” described Spaeth.
That fire carried him all the way to the top of the awards podium at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle. Though USA Games now holds the title for the highlight of Spaeth’s Special Olympics career, his journey began long before he even set foot in the Emerald City.
Competing in Special Olympics Guilford/Greensboro’s Spring Games as a young child gave Spaeth a taste of his future. He was able to try running long jump and shot put for the first time.
“He’s always loved sports and has always loved competing,” said Spaeth’s mom, Valerie. “He also loved watching his older sister play volleyball. He wanted to be an athlete just like her.”
Spaeth took his aspirations seriously. At 13, he began training in basketball and soccer, loving every minute of each sport. However, when he stepped out on the track to begin training in athletics, something magical happened.
“I just love to run, because I like to be fast,” explained Spaeth.
The magic continued when Spaeth attended his first Special Olympics NC Summer Games in 2015. After competing in the 100-meter run, running long jump and shot put, he earned his first medals in his now favorite sport.
“I ran fast just like Usain Bolt, the fastest man alive.”
It’s easy to see why Spaeth admires Bolt. As he says, Bolt is fast, a good sport and does the long jump—just like him. All of those characteristics helped Spaeth to winning the gold in the 200-meter run at the 2017 SONC Summer Games, qualifying him to potentially be selected to attend the 2018 USA Games. After finding out he would be traveling to Seattle, Spaeth trained hard with his local Special Olympics track coach, Coach Linda.
All of his preparations paid off. Though he earned a gold medal, silver medal, bronze medal and 7th place ribbon, Spaeth walked away with something even better.
“The bond he made with his athletics teammates and coaches during that week was incredible,” said Spaeth’s dad, Joe.
“I made so many new friends and hung out with my favorite coach, Coach Roach (Roachel Laney from Watauga County),” added Spaeth. “He’s my buddy. He gave me tips and taught me more about the hand-off for the 4×100 relay.”
After returning to North Carolina, Spaeth sorely missed his new friends and coaches. However, soon Spaeth will make over 300 new friends when he travels to Abu Dhabi to compete at the 2019 Special Olympics World Games as part of Special Olympics USA.
“We were so excited to find out he was selected,” said Joe. “We have been going to his high school’s track in the mornings to practice sprints.”
In fact, Spaeth’s dedication to Special Olympics USA drove him to select a weightlifting class as an extracurricular this year in order to help with strength training.
“I think it’s really going to help me before World Games,” said Spaeth. “I’m going to get strong and even faster.”
From his very first race, Spaeth has been channeling his inner Bolt and this experience will be no different. Though he has confidence he will win the gold, Spaeth is really just excited for the chance to represent the USA. Yet, he will admit that adding to his rack of medals will make the experience even sweeter.
“My USA Games medals are closest to the head of the bed,” explained Spaeth. “I’m saving spots for my next ones.”
As he takes to the starting line on the track in Abu Dhabi, Spaeth may think of a quote from his role model, Bolt: “A lot of legends, a lot of people, have come before me. But this is my time.” However, when he’s rounding the curve and closing in on the finish line, he plans to stick to his own personal motto: Kick dust!