Jonathan Schomaker of Greene competes in track and cross country for Leavitt Area High School. His appeal to compete in postseason cross country meets was recently denied by the Maine Principals’ Association. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

All Jonathan Schomaker wants to do is race with his team.

Since his appeal to to compete in the Class B South regional cross country meet and Class B state meet in his wheelchair was denied by the Maine Principals’ Association last month, the Leavitt Area High School sophomore, has gained help and support in his fight from throughout the state and even the country.

“My cross country team is kind of like my family,” Schomaker, who lives in Greene, said.

The effort by Schomaker and others seems to be helping his cause.

Mike Bisson, the head of the MPA’s cross country committee, said Monday that he and members of the committee will meet with Leavitt cross country coach Neal Rioux on Tuesday to tour the course at Twin Brook Recreational Area, the location of both the regional and state meets, in an effort to find a way to allow Schomaker to compete.

“There’s no changes, but we are working through the possible options,” Bisson said. “We are trying to find a way for him to participate. … Their coach is going to be involved in the process, he knows Jonathan well, and we are going to see if we can get a safe course for him to participate on. In one or way another, we’d like him to participate in the championships.”

Schomaker has 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.

The Mt. Blue High School cross country team is gathering signatures of coaches and cross country athletes from around the state in support of Schomaker having the opportunity to compete in the regional meet and, if Leavitt qualifies, in the state meet. Mt. Blue head coach Kelley Cullenberg has also heard about many others sending letters and emails to the MPA on Schomaker’s behalf.

“The MPA could’ve been the heroes and let me race, but they didn’t,” Jonathan Schomaker said. “… I just want to be a part of my team and the race, no matter if I score or not.

“None of this would’ve happened if they just did it in the first place.”

Jon Schomaker, Jonathan’s father, said he has received Facebook messages from around the country from people offering to help.

Maine state Sen. Jeff Timberlake of the 22nd District, which includes Greene and Turner, where Leavitt Area High School is located, sent a letter to the MPA last week imploring the association to allow Schomaker to compete in postseason races.

“To put it mildly, I am disappointed with the MPA’s decision,” Timberlake wrote the letter, which was also sent to the Sun Journal.

The letter continues:

“By all accounts, Jonathan has raced — without issue — for the last two years (and even before that in middle school) at a number of different venues. The participants and spectators at every meet are blown away by his determination and grit. The coaches I have talked with that have hosted Jonathan at various meets report that making any necessary adjustments to the course have been relatively easy and have not disrupted other runners in any way. I have also not heard one complaint about Jonathan interfering with other runners.”

Bisson said that the purpose of Tuesday’s Twin Brook visit will be to decide if modifications can be made to accommodate Schomaker’s wheelchair, and whether he will race by himself or on his own course.

“We are looking at a model that is similar to track, with the wheelchair event on a modified course that he would be able to do and do safely, and we would work through those things tomorrow,” Bisson said Monday. “The committee did not approve the original request, and we want them to have input into something. Hopefully it’s something we can make work for Jon and his family.”

When the appeal was denied last month, MPA executive director Michael Burnham said the course is unable to be modified. 

You could say we did a tremendous amount of research,” Burnham said last month, “but in the end, given the course we hold our championships on, it wasn’t possible to modify the course and secure the safety of runners. The concern would be for the other runners, if they came out of the course and there was a wheelchair there.”

Jonathan Schomaker said safety hasn’t been an issue in the races he’s participated in the past two seasons.

“I’ve never hit anyone before,” he said.

The Schomakers are also upset with the lack of communication between them and the MPA. Bisson said the MPA called the Schomakers on Sept. 27, the day the original Sun Journal story was published, but that he hadn’t contacted them prior.

We are now figuring out that they may have possibly assumed that when we talked about modifying the course for Jonathan, that (they would) have to modify the course for everyone, which was never the case,” Jon Schomaker said. “It was never assumed, and that wouldn’t make any sense. They had the information, but I think they jumped to their conclusions and discounted any information they were presented.”

Jonathan Schomaker has competed at every meet this season with his Leavitt teammates, except for last Friday at Mt. Ararat because repairs were being made to his wheelchair. Whenever Schomaker has needed modifications made to the course, schools across the state have been willing to accommodate. 

At Oxford Hills’ course on Sept. 27, Schomaker only did one loop, instead of two, because of the vast amount of hills. This Friday, Leavitt is traveling to Farmington for the Mt. Blue Relays, and Rioux has already cleared a change with Cullenberg to allow Schomaker compete, similar to the change the made last year. In the interest of time, during Schomaker’s leg of the relay, he will race one mile, while everyone else will run two.

“Neal (Rioux) ended up sending us an email with his teams and said, ‘Here is our Plan A and B, in case it’s not OK if Jon is scoring,’” Cullenberg said. “And my response was, ‘Is he on the team? He’s a teammate.’

“In my opinion, no one looks at him having an advantage. That’s absurd. I hope that the MPA sees all the signatures and sees people are passionate about it.”

The accommodations that schools have made for Schomaker have been either in regard to time or to portions of the course not feasible for wheelchairs, such as when Schomaker was in middle school and had to go around a foot-wide foot bridge. 

At Twin Brook, Jon Schomaker has heard that the “Pain Cave,” a steep hill in the middle of the race, might be a struggle for Schomaker, but he has not seen it in person. He has heard that the entrance and exit are close by, which might allow his son to possibly bypass that part of the course.

Timberlake said that he learned about the situation through the Sun Journal’s original article, so when Schomaker reached out, he was already prepared to help. Late last week, Timberlake sent the letter to the MPA, urging the cross country committee to allow Schomaker to compete.

“If you’ve ever dealt with the MPA in the past, they can sometimes be difficult to navigate,” Timberlake said Monday. “I think the Schomakers found this to be true. They’re my constituents and my job is to represent them. I felt there was no reason to deprive this young man the ability to do this.

“From what we’re hearing from other coaches, and it’s somewhat hearsay, they’re not having a problem with it and they don’t see a reason why the course can’t be changed.”

Jon Schomaker has also been in contact with Disability Rights Maine, which told Schomaket it will have its legal team contact him.

Messages to Disability Rights Maine were not returned Monday.

Mt. Blue is collecting signatures online on a Google document, and they’ll do likewise in-person at Friday’s relay meet in Farmington. At the Mt. Ararat meet last week, Gardiner Area High School’s team made signs to show its support for Jonathan, and Jon said he’s heard support from many other schools throughout the season. 

At this point, I think they’re forced into it,” Jon Schomaker said of the MPA. “I know there is a lot of pressure. I’m getting messages from all over the country saying, ‘This is ridiculous, I am writing a letter to the MPA.’ It’s been amazing the level of support we have gotten.”

Bisson said he will have more information after Tuesday’s tour.

For Jonathan Schomaker, the fight isn’t only for his own chance to race, but for anyone else who comes after him. 

“Since I am the first one to do this, if there are other people that come in wheelchairs, they might not have to go through this,” Schomaker said. 


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