|NORMANPatrick Ahearn surrounds himself with people who
do what he no longer can. Run. Less than three months ago, the wiry kid was pushing his way up the
Norman High cross country roster, running times that would've made varsity at many schools but fighting
his way through the defending state champion's junior-varsity pack. He was showing up early to practice.
He was following every instruction from the coach. He was doing everything possible to make the most of
his senior season. Now, he can't even walk as fast as he did back then. Patrick lost part of his left leg in a
jet ski accident.
On a weekend when Norman finished as the regional runner-up and qualified for next week's state cross
country meet, Patrick was not among the Tigers' runners. He didn't race around the course. He didn't count
toward the team score. And yet, even as he continues recovering from an accident that easily could have
killed him, he is still very much a part of this team. He is a captain, a motivator, an inspiration.
"He's wanted no pity," Norman High cross country coach Scott Monnard said. "Who knows what happens
behind closed doors, but not out here. He's always been upbeat." The accident took a chunk of his leg.
Not his spirit. Patrick doesn't remember the moment of impact. In early August, his family decided to make
one last summer escape before school started, driving to Destin, Fla., and staying in a beach condo. It's a
spot they'd been before, but for the first time, Patrick and his stepbrother decided to rent Jet Skis for a
couple hours. Patrick had never driven a Sea-Doo. They crept slowly through the harbor's no-wake zone,
then passed under a bridge where they could increase their speed. But Patrick took it slow.
He is a super smart, one of the brightest kids on a team known for its student-athletes. He
dreams of going to OU to major in engineering, the sign of a young man who's calculated and
meticulous. "I was focused on not hitting a wave too fast and flying off," he said of that August day on
the Florida water. "That's kind of why I didn't see the boat."
Patrick only knows what happened next because of what others have told him.
A 38-foot speedboat was coming from his left and heading toward an inlet on his right. As the two
approached, Patrick's stepbrother realized that neither the boat nor Patrick saw the other, so he started
yelling, trying to get someone's attention, hoping to alert them to the danger.
The sound of the jet ski drowned out his cries.
Just before impact, both Patrick and the boat's operator saw the other. Both turned and tried to avoid
the collision, but it was too late.
The jet ski hit the side of the boat, scraped down the side of it and ended up by the propeller, which caught
Patrick's foot. He flew into the air and landed in the water, face down and unconscious.
His stepbrother hurried to his limp body and pulled him from the water. The boat circled
back, took Patrick on board and rushed him to shore.
They saved his life but not his left foot.
The propeller severed it between his ankle and knee.
Patrick woke up a couple days later in a hospital bed in Pensacola. He had no idea why he was there.
"You were in an accident," his folks told him, "and you lost your leg."
The words were as shocking to Patrick as you would imagine. Lost my leg? What does that mean? How
is that possible? But he didn't shed any tears. Not then anyway.
A few days later, Patrick woke up in the middle of the night and needed to use the bathroom. Even though
he'd been through several surgeries, not only on his leg but also on a busted femur and a broken clavicle,
he got out of bed and tried to walk to the bathroom. He fell instantly.
In his groggy state, he had forgotten he no longer had two feet.
Patrick needed help to get up and called for the nurses. As he lay on the floor, he dissolved into tears.
"Oh, man," he thought, "I can't do this."
Those kind of dark moments have been few. Forrest Hair, one of Patrick's closest buddies and fellow
cross country captain, went to Florida to visit him in the hospital, and what he saw even in those days
following the accident amazed him. Yes, there were times Patrick was bitter, but Forrest never saw him
angry. "And the crazy thing is, through that whole time, he was focusing on other people," Forrest said.
"Even when he was in so much pain, he would say thank you to the nurses without fail."
It was a sign of things to come.
Patrick spent 10 days in the hospital in Florida, then made the two-day trip back to Oklahoma. Less than
48 hours later, he was at a practice meet with his Norman High teammates.
Not returning to the team was never an option.
Patrick joined cross country as a sophomore. He'd played soccer but never given distance running much
thought until one of the coaches convinced him to give it a shot. A year later, he was hooked.
"I love to compete," Patrick said, "so I like races and trying to beat people down the final stretch,
sprinting it out with someone next to you."
But as much as anything, he loved how close the team was. The bond. The camaraderie. The fun.
Even though he never made the varsity squad in either of his first two seasons, Patrick made a
resolution last fall. He wanted to be a leader for this team and make sure everyone had as good
of an experience as he'd had. His goal: to be a captain as a senior.
"Being a captain on this team is not about being fast," his buddy Forrest said. "It's not about being on
varsity. "It's about being an influence." Patrick started showing up for 6:45 a.m. summer practices 20 or
30 minutes early. He welcomed newcomers. He encouraged everyone.
"You know who I've really been impressed with?" Monnard, the head coach, told his assistants as the
summer wound down. "Patrick." All of them agreed.
Soon after, they decided Patrick would be one of the team captains. They planned to tell him when
he got back from his trip to Florida.
The first month back home was tough for Patrick. Because of his broken clavicle, he couldn't support
himself on crutches and had to use a wheelchair. He became almost completely reliant on others for
help with just about everything. Not exactly popular with a teenage boy. "He hated the wheelchair,"
Monnard said. But . . . "He's handled (everything) better
than I ever could've imagined." Once the clavicle healed a month ago, Patrick started using crutches. A
few days later, he was fitted for his first prosthetic, a contraption that attaches just below his knee. For
the past few weeks, he's been working at physical therapy and at home to improve his balance, to reduce
his limp and to walk without a crutch. On Monday, he ditched his crutch midway through the school day
and spent the entire afternoon walking without it for the first time.
"I have this uneasiness sometimes that I might fall," he admitted. "I get tired a lot faster. I go a lot slower,
so I was a little late to my fifth hour, but my teachers understand."
Support, it seems, has come from everywhere.
There have been grand gestures; Laura Clay and her Westmoore High cross country team, one of Norman's
biggest rivals, did a fundraiser to help defer some of Patrick's medical costs. There have been smaller moments,
too. A student holding a door. A classmate carrying a book. A letter from another cross country team with notes
of encouragement. Patrick is thankful for every bit of help. No one meant more, though, than his
teammates. They were among the first people he saw when he returned to Norman as they gathered
en masse at his house. But as much as anything, they treated him they way they always had, joking
and laughing and encouraging. "They were always there," he said, "cheering me on." Just like old times.
Patrick Ahearn plans to run again. While he won't receive his permanent prosthetic for a couple more
months - the process will wait until the shape of what's left of his leg stops changing - he already has
designs on getting a running leg. It will cost more, as insurance only covers the expense of a primary
prosthesis. But with several hundred donated dollars and foundations offering grants for such
expenses yep, Patrick has already looked into that he hopes to make it happen.
"After this, I'm like, he can do whatever he wants," his buddy Forrest said. "Running? Sure. Triathlon?
Sure, Patrick can do it." His first goal: next year's Brookhaven Run. The 5K is a staple on the community's
running calendar, and Norman High's cross country teams are heavily involved.
This year, the entire team gathered for a photo after the race. Patrick is in front
surrounded by his teammates, sitting in that wheelchair and smiling. Next year, there will be no sitting.
"I just want to run and get out there again," he said.
Even though he has surrounded himself with people
who do what he can't, even though he has lost part of his leg, one thing about Patrick Ahearn has
never changed. He is a runner.