A lifelong race: Justin Gallegos doesn’t let Cerebral Palsy keep him from running
If you saw Justin Gallegos on the street, you’d think he looks just like any other loyal Ducks fan.
The Santa Clarita, California, native is almost always decked out in a green beanie with the iconic yellow ‘O’ emblazoned on the front. He usually sports a Nike shirt marked with the running clubs he idolizes – Bowerman Track Club, Nike Oregon Project Oregon Track Club Elite – and a pair of Nike Pegasus shoes.
Even before he got to the University of Oregon, Gallegos was inspiring runners across the country. Gallegos has cerebral palsy, which affects coordination and muscles, slowing movement. While more advanced CP can render the need for the use of a wheelchair and affect the ability to speak, Gallegos has a milder form of the condition. But he doesn’t let that stop him from competing for the UO Running Club. He is able to walk without assistance and run competitively.
When Gallegos was representing the club for the first time at the Charles Bowles Willamette Invitational in Salem on Oct. 1, he lost his shoe within the first 50 meters of the race in the chaos at the start. He stopped to pick it up, but the combination of the ticking clock and his desire to do well in his first collegiate race convinced him to continue with just one shoe.
“He was about to run the whole damn race holding his shoe until everyone started yelling at him to just stop and put it on,” said teammate Kylen Fleishman. “He didn’t even waste a second. He just kept going.”
Gallegos finally paused to put his shoe on and went on to finish the 8-kilometer course in 42 minutes, 12.9 seconds.
Although Gallegos finished last out of 208 competitors, his presence never fails to make an impact on those watching him perfect his art. Fleishman, a sophomore, is one of many who feel inspired just by watching him run.
“I’ve always been the guy on my team who would cheer for every member of the team, regardless of where they’re finishing,” Fleishman said. “But for Gallegos, it’s just another level.”
Gallegos, a freshman, started walking at the age of 2 but used a walker until kindergarten. He underwent physical therapy for many years, visiting the doctor two to three times a week to straighten his gait.
“My feet are turned in because of the way I walk, and I’d fall every day or every other day,” he said.
Gallegos initially considered joining his high school football team, but his father, Brent Gallegos, persuaded him to try out for cross country. After Gallegos found his passion for running during his freshman year of high school, he grew stronger and more confident — and began dreaming of running at UO.
“Before high school, I wasn’t as strong as I am today,” the Hart High graduate said. “I wasn’t as active and social as I am now. I’m glad running has led me here.”
Gallegos was inspired by the running culture in Eugene, where Nike was founded. His former assistant coach went to UO as well as many former UO runners Gallegos admires.
Gallegos’ first order of business after enrolling at the university was joining the UO Running Club. In the first three weeks of the term, Gallegos showed up for almost every day of practice, even though attendance was not mandatory.
Sophomore Jake Willard, a coordinator for the running club, said Gallegos quickly became a source of inspiration for the club.
“You can see how much he loves and enjoys the club,” Willard said. “You can see it in the way he runs, the way he acts, the way he interacts with people. He’s a really heartfelt guy, and it’s really awesome to see how much he’s already brought to the club.”
Gallegos said he feels lucky to attend UO. He almost didn’t fulfill his dream of coming to Eugene because out-of-state tuition, housing and living expenses amount to around $50,000 a year, nearly eight times more than what it would cost for him to stay close to home.
Gallegos is no stranger to press coverage. Established sports journalism websites ESPN and FloTrack wrote about him. His high school classmate produced a documentary about him titled “No Such Thing As A Disability.” Since then, Gallegos has tagged all his Instagram photos with #NoSuchThingAsADisability.
It was Gallegos’ press coverage that caught the eye of John Truax, who works in the Nike running department. Truax offered to work with UO administration to help him raise funds for school. His first piece of advice for Gallegos was to set up a GoFundMe page, which has so far netted $10,970, enough to see him through his first quarter of college.
With Gallegos’ interest piqued, he and his father visited Oregon to meet some of the people who were supporting his cause.
It was “like a Disney movie,” Gallegos’ father said. They toured the Nike Beaverton campus and met the Nike-sponsored Olympians who trained there. The company also presented Gallegos with a check to supplement his college fund and tickets to the final day of the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Eugene.
“We realized that there were enough people wanting to make this happen, and that was the turning point,” Gallegos’ father said. “It started out on faith. We still need to figure things out … when the second quarter rolls around, but there are some really good people that are on his team trying to make this happen.”
Gallegos hopes to have a scholarship set up under his name for those with disabilities who wish to represent the university’s sports clubs.
He is on track to declare journalism as his major, but his long-term goal is to become a sponsored athlete and someday represent the U.S. at the Paralympics, preferably in the 1,500 meters. Gallegos would need to shave around two minutes off his personal record to meet the qualifying standard at the Paralympics.
“He’s game for anything, and that impresses me,” said Tom Heinonen, UO running club’s volunteer coach.
Earlier this year, the California Interscholastic Federation Track and Field State Championships introduced the Paralympic Games. Though Gallegos’ love for running lies in mile-and-above distances, the longest race hosted was the 400 meters. He ran anyway and emerged the champion for his division.
“The rise of disabled sport is bigger than people think it is,” Gallegos said. “I believe there’s going to come a time in high school athletics and the NCAA when they are going to integrate disabled athletes.”
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