Palatine's Waller, who is on the autism spectrum, gains confidence through running
Running has opened up a "brave new world" for Brandon Waller.
He used to have a lot of trouble communicating with strangers and interacting socially.
Waller, a senior at Palatine, is on the autism spectrum and also has anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and ADHD.
He would have never dared to do an interview with a reporter he had never met, like he did for this story.
But running, and running so well that he has become the No. 1 runner for the Palatine boys cross country team this fall, has changed him. It has opened his eyes, and his world and his view of himself.
It has totally changed his confidence, and his beliefs of what he is capable of.
"I feel really brave sometimes when I'm out there running and it's really hard," Waller said. "I feel like it's good to give it a chance or a risk, doing something I've never done before."
Waller had never before won a varsity cross country race. Until last week. He placed first in a meet against Prospect with a time of 16:10.
"I felt pretty good about myself (winning that race) and it says a lot about how I've changed and how I've overcome a lot of problems I used to have, things that weren't easy for me or that I didn't believe I could do," Waller said. "I think running has helped me understand things a little better, it's helped me do a lot more things.
"The way I feel after I run makes me feel like I can do more."
Waller has his eye on a marathon.
He's already come close to hitting the 26-mile mark.
This summer, as part of his rigorous training, Waller regularly went on 22-mile treks, following a path that took him from Palatine High School to Fremd High School, to Harper College, to Hoffman Estates and back.
"Brandon just runs and runs, it's just instinctive to him," Palatine boys cross country coach Chris Quick said. "He could run three times a day, 20 miles a day. He will often run 100 miles a week. I've seen it where he'll run in the morning, run a race for us in the afternoon, and then ask his parents if he can go for a run when he gets home at night.
"He's like a thoroughbred with blinders on. He's just focused and he goes for it."
Waller was diagnosed with his conditions when he was about 3 years old. Many of his typical milestones were delayed.
His parents, Nelson and Susan, tried to get him involved in sports early in his childhood to help him overcome some of his social fears.
Waller tried basketball, volleyball, softball and even some figure skating.
"Brandon really liked basketball. That was around sixth grade," Nelson Waller said. "But he had some challenges with the intellectual part of the game. He could get up and down the court really well and really fast so we knew he had some ability. So we decided to put in him track and field in eighth grade, and then cross country and he took to it really naturally.
"That's when we knew he had some degree of natural athleticism."
Waller has won state running championships through the Special Olympics. But it was when he started hanging tough with all the kids on the Palatine cross country team that his parents saw a side of their son that they had not before seen.
"Freshman year, Brandon really got pushed by other kids in the program and we saw that he really liked the challenge of getting better and of showing that he could run with mainstream kids," Nelson Waller said. "But we were also wondering how he would handle everything. There's a lot of discipline and pressure that goes along with running at that level.
"He's kind of shocked us at being able to handle it really well and reach a fairly high level of success. It's so heartwarming for us to see this play out in a way that was unexpected. There was so much happiness for him when he won that meet (against Prospect). That kind of success has given him a whole new avenue to see himself as being able to compete and be just like the mainstream kids."
Waller is not in mainstream classes at Palatine, but he is improving academically. His parents and Coach Quick believe that the confidence he has gained through running has a lot to do with that.
"I would love for Brandon to run in college, maybe at somewhere like Harper," Quick said. "But to be eligible, you've got to be in three mainstream college classes and that might not be viable. But Brandon could continue to train with us, he could stay around the program. We are working on options right now for him. We'd like to see him continue to run."
Waller can't imagine stopping.
Running has become his safe space, his sanctuary, his happy place.
Even on his 22-mile treks, he never uses headphones. He likes the quiet, he likes the serenity. It's like therapy.
"What I like about running is that it reminds me of meditation," Waller said. "I run when it's quiet and I think about what's in front of me. It's relaxing. It seems pretty natural to me. It helps my emotions and energy."