Leavitt’s Jonathan Schomaker competes during the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference cross country championships Saturday in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal  Buy this Photo

A high school wheelchair athlete will be allowed to compete alongside runners at Saturday’s regional cross country championships, the Maine Principals’ Association announced Tuesday.

Jonathan Schomaker of Leavitt Area High will race on a modified course and be scored in a separate wheelchair division at the Class B South meet at Twin Brook Recreation Area in Cumberland. The ruling also allows the sophomore to race at the state championships on Nov. 2, also at Twin Brook.

The MPA said earlier this fall it had no precedent regarding wheelchair participants at its cross country championships. For the past month, the MPA has been engaged in discussions with the school and the Schomaker family about the feasibility of allowing Jonathan to race in its meets.

“Schomaker will start the race with the other runners, but the layout of the course will give the other runners an opportunity to get out in front as he starts his race,” Michael Burnham, executive director of the Interscholastic Division of the MPA, said in Tuesday’s news release. “There will also be a marshal on the course to assure his, as well as the other competitors’ safety, and his times will be counted in a wheelchair division.

“Our number one concern here has always been the safety of all the athletes and this accommodation should keep everyone safe.”

Schomaker, 15, has cerebellar hypoplasia, a rare neurological condition that affects muscle tone and coordination. He has been competing for Leavitt alongside his teammates at regular-season meets, with his father behind him ready to assist if necessary. He also competed alongside runners at the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference championships last Saturday at Cony High in Augusta.

After Schomaker was not allowed to compete in the regional and state meets a year ago, Leavitt appealed to the MPA to let him compete in those meets this fall. In late September, the MPA denied the appeal, citing safety concerns for Schomaker and runners on the course.

Uproar over the MPA’s decision to exclude Schomaker from the championships meets attracted attention from national media, as well as from a Maine lawmaker. Sen. Jeff Timberlake, who represents Turner and other communities in Androscoggin County, wrote a letter to the MPA imploring the group to reconsider its decision. And the Mt. Blue High School cross country team gathered signatures of coaches and runners from around the state in support of Schomaker.

The MPA reversed its decision on Oct. 11, informing the Schomakers and the school that Jonathan would be allowed to compete in regional and state meets on a separate course from the runners but in his own wheelchair division. Jon Schomaker, the boy’s father, protested that decision, arguing that Jonathan should be able to compete alongside the other runners.

Tuesday’s announcement appears to strike a compromise. Jon Schomaker said of the decision: “I’m good with this.”

The ruling is the first step in laying the groundwork for wheelchair athletes who want to compete in cross country.

“The new division will also open up the opportunity for him to qualify for the state cross country meet as a wheelchair athlete,” Leavitt Principal Eben Shaw told the Sun Journal in an email. “Ultimately, the hard work of the parties involved has resulted in an outcome that will benefit future wheelchair athletes wishing to participate in the sport of cross country.”

Jon Schomaker agreed. “It creates a legacy for people that don’t have to go through this in the future. They hope to establish a wheelchair division statewide going forward.”

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