Jonathan Schomaker has been competing for the Leavitt Area High School cross country team alongside his teammates at regular season meets this fall. However, he will not be allowed compete at the regional or state meets this season, according to the Maine Principals’ Association.

Leavitt Area High School’s Jonathan Schomaker arrives at the finish line with his father, Jon, at his side during a cross country race in 2018. Adam Robinson/Sun Journal

Schomaker suffers from cerebellar hypoplasia, which forces the 15-year-old to use a wheelchair during races with his father, Jon, behind him ready to assist if necessary. 

After he was not allowed to compete in the regional and state meets a year ago, Leavitt appealed to the MPA in hopes of finding a way for Schomaker to be able to race in his wheelchair in the final two, and biggest, meets of the season.

The MPA, though, denied Leavitt’s appeal this week due to safety concerns.

In the letter sent to Schomaker and the high school, the MPA said, “Discussions raised concerns regarding safety for the young man in the wheelchair as well as the other competitors running around him on the course.” 

When asked about the safety concerns Friday, Mike Bisson, the head of the MPA’s cross country committee, told the Sun Journal that he was worried about a crash occurring between Schomaker’s chair and another runner on a loop where a runner is coming through an already-ran path.

“We know that we have parts that overlap and it runs through a loop, and we want to make sure that the kids that are racing aren’t impeded,” Bisson said. “We want to insure there was enough room, going through the woods, and most courses have narrow parts in the woods.”

Among the other safety concerns that came from Bisson’s discussions with U.S. Paralympics, Adapted Sports New England, the MPA Sports Medicine Committee and the MPA Interscholastic Committee was the chance of Schomaker getting stuck in dirt or mud during the race. 

Schomaker, a sophomore, competes for the Hornets during the indoor and outdoor track seasons, but in separate races specifically for wheelchair athletes. In cross country, the MPA isn’t able to create another race just for Schomaker.

However, Schomaker’s father is not looking for his son to be in his own race. 

During the regular season, Jonathan Schomaker races on the same course as his teammates and competitors. Sometimes, as was the plan for Friday’s race at Oxford Hills’ home course, there are modifications made to Schomaker’s path, such as doing one lap instead of two because of excessive hills. 

“He’s done a couple (full races) as far as the courses go,” Jon Schomaker said of his son. “He’s fully capable of doing the 5K. In the interest of time, so we don’t hold things up, we give him a shorter course. … At Highland Green Golf Course (Mt. Ararat’s home course), he did the full 5K there, probably in the 45-minute range. He can move, and on the downhills he is flying. It’s all in perspective.”

Leavitt’s Jonathan Schomaker competes in a cross country meet at Leavitt Area High School last year. Submitted photo

Jon Schomaker isn’t requesting separate state and regional races for his son, rather one or two modifications made to the course for Schomaker so that he could finish the races, which will both be held at Twin Brook Recreation Area this year. Jon Schomaker would have been content if the MPA made Jonathan’s path shorter than 5 kilometers and didn’t score his race, as has happened at other courses on which Leavitt has competed this season. 

“I didn’t file any of the (appeal) stuff. Basically, (Leavitt) proposed various options, either shortening the course or changing his course because there might be a foot bridge or hills that are just unmanageable,” Jon Schomaker said. “There is a place (at Twin Brook) where there is a little loop that is very steep. You can bypass it by just going past the entrance and going by the exit.

“That was offered and (the MPA) just didn’t acknowledge it. They can modify it, but they just won’t.”

The MPA did not communicate with the Schomakers during the appeal process, only with Leavitt. The school’s athletic director Ryan Laroche and cross country head coach Neal Rioux both directed questions to principal Eben Shaw, who was unhappy with the result.

The recent decision regarding (Jonathan’s) participation in postseason races is an unfortunate one,” Shaw said in an email to the Sun Journal. “I think we all make every effort to support all of our students in both academic and extracurricular activities.

“While we certainly appreciate the time and consideration of the Interscholastic Management Committee and understand that there are many considerations when it comes to determining eligibility for participation in postseason meets, this isn’t the outcome we were hoping for.”

Jon Schomaker is planning to bring Jonathan, in his wheelchair, to the regional and state meets, and hopes to also bring other parathletes to the race as well as a support to his son and to send a message to the MPA. 

Schomaker said he asked his son recently if he wanted to continue pursuing the right to race at the regional and state meets, telling him that “it could get ugly.”

“He thought about it for a minute and then said, ‘Yes, I do,’” Jon Schomaker said. “That means a lot. He wants to do it for everyone else who might be affected by this in the future.”

Schomaker is researching what kind of legal action he can take against the MPA in an effort to give his son a chance to race in the regional and state meets. 

In his conversation with the Sun Journal, Bisson also mentioned race integrity, saying, “This is a state and regional championship. It’s not a regular season meet. We already have the course and course records. That’s really it, there’s also the competitive balance issue. We don’t have a great model to follow.”

Michael Burnham, the executive director of the MPA, echoed Bisson’s comments on safety. 

“Would it have any impact on the final result, probably not, but as soon as it’s not a part of the course, can you assure that he’s not going to be there when the athletes are coming out of the woods?” Burnham said.

Burnham said he was happy that other schools have made accommodations and modifications that allow Schomaker to compete, but cited the high amount of races already scheduled as a reason the MPA can’t make it work for Jonathan Schomaker. 

Jon Schomaker was hoping that the MPA would become trend-setters of sorts in its decision, but Bisson and the committee couldn’t find a precedent that would help them come to a compromise. 

“People aren’t trying to keep him out,” Bisson said. “They don’t want to impact other kids’ safety. And part of the reason is we have had models to follow and there is no good model for wheelchair competition for gravel or harder courses. We don’t really have a great model. We know how a wheelchair compares to someone running the course. We know that the wheelchair can be slower.

“This isn’t something that any of us enjoy, but we want it to be safe for everyone. If we can work through those things, I am sure the cross country committee would be good with that.”

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