Although freshman Chloe Williams and sophomore Patrick Ziegler are vastly different in many ways, the Dublin Coffman High School students do share a few uncommon traits.

Although freshman Chloe Williams and sophomore Patrick Ziegler are vastly different in many ways, the Dublin Coffman High School students do share a few uncommon traits.

Both Williams and Ziegler have autism, which is a pervasive developmental disorder characterized by severe deficits in social interaction and communication, an extremely limited range of activities and interests, and often the presence of repetitive, stereotyped behaviors.

But with the help of family members, friends and teachers, both Williams and Ziegler have overcome their autism to become a part of Coffman's cross country program.

Peggy Mills, who works as an adapted physical education teacher for Dublin schools, said the experience is a major breakthrough for Williams and Ziegler, who are unable to express themselves verbally and therefore used to avoid being in social situations.

"The wonderful thing about Chloe and Patrick running cross country is they're benefiting from the experience both physically and socially," Mills said. "They're good athletes and they deserve the opportunity to run with and compete with other kids their age. They have special needs, but the key that makes this program work is they have great support from their families, the paraprofessionals within our school district and their peers, who volunteer their time to help out in any way they can."

To ensure their safety, Williams and Ziegler are accompanied by a special needs aide during practices and cross country meets. In addition, Coffman athletics director Tony Pusateri obtained written permission from the OHSAA for a student to run with Williams and Ziegler during cross country meets. Senior Jamie Mills runs alongside Williams and helps guide her through the course, and sophomore Luke Margaroli does the same for Ziegler.

Even though Williams isn't able to interact with Jamie Mills verbally, she understands sign language.

When Jamie Mills needs to encourage Williams to begin or continue running, she hooks her right index finger inside her left thumb, points her left index finger forward and shakes her hands forward.

Jamie Mills, a fourth-year member of the cross country program, said she's having more fun running with Williams than she did when she was competing on her own.

"I didn't like the competitive side of racing, but I still wanted to run cross country, so this is a good opportunity for me, too," Jamie Mills said. "I try to pace (Williams) because she tends to try to walk at the start of races, but once I get her running, she really likes it and she usually doesn't stop. If I run in front of her, she'll catch up to me. She's in really good shape. She can run five miles without stopping."

The races haven't always gone smoothly for Williams and Ziegler, who sometimes slow down or stop when they get distracted by fans cheering along a course.

In his first open race of the season, the Pickerington Classic on Aug. 29 at Pickerington North, Ziegler began to run when the gun sounded, but then slowed to a walk and held his ears after being passed by a large pack of runners.

After being encouraged by Margaroli and Peggy Mills, Ziegler gradually began running again and finished the race in second-to-last place in 42 minutes, 56.15 seconds. Seven days later in the Westerville Classic at Westerville North, Ziegler finished in 30:03, beating 11 other competitors.

"Patrick's improved so quickly, and I've seen the socialization process getting better for him as well," Coffman boys coach Chad Biegler said. "The first time he tried it, he couldn't handle running in the rain, but the last time it rained, it wasn't a problem for him. He's starting to interact with his teammates more, too. When he had his big breakthrough at Westerville, he was shaking people's hands and he had a big smile on his face."

Standing 5-foot-11 and weighing 130 pounds, Ziegler has a prototypical runner's build, and Margaroli said he hasn't yet come close to reaching his athletic potential.

"Patrick's still learning to race, but he's in outstanding shape, and he could run 30 miles if he wanted to," Margaroli said. "Patrick doesn't have any trouble finishing races. I'm just there to help when we need to change direction on a confusing course or to encourage him to speed up. When I say 'to grandma's house,' that gets him running faster, because he really likes going there."

After finishing 269th of 275 athletes in 34:31.01 in the open race of the Pickerington Classic, Williams improved her time to 31:03 and finished 250th of 271 runners in the Westerville Classic.

"Chloe's improved a lot in a short amount of time and she's beaten people in every race," Coffman girls coach Jim Ferguson said. "She seems to be enjoying herself and her teammates have enjoyed having her on the team as well."

Junior Robbie Daulton, who is one of the boys team's top performers, said he and his teammates are inspired by Williams and Ziegler.

"It's really cool to have them as part of our team and see them overcome deficits to compete with and even beat runners who don't have any disabilities," Daulton said. "They're both in really good shape, and they have good form and good technique. I think about how strong they are in practice every day and it makes me want to do my best, too."

Jack and Michelle Williams said running has had a positive impact on their daughter's physical and mental health.

"Running five miles a day has not only kept Chloe in shape, but it's also helping her sleep better," Michelle Williams said. "There's just something about running that she really likes, and she really enjoys spending time with her peers. We took her out to dinner for her 15th birthday (Sept. 17) and the hostess recognized Chloe and came over and said, 'Hello,' because she's seen her warming up with the cross country team. Chloe's learned and benefited from being around her teammates, and they've learned tolerance and that everyone isn't the same from being around her."

Mike and Normajean Ziegler have noticed that their son is beginning to interact more with his teammates at practices and meets.

"It's a social piece for Patrick," Mike Ziegler said. "He's being forced to talk and participate with other kids, and that's the best way to learn more words and more language. A few years ago, if you were to say, 'Hi,' he wouldn't acknowledge you. Now he says, 'Hi,' back to people and he's shaking hands and high-fiving with people after he's done running. Where he used to flee from social situations, he's now looking forward to them."

Williams and Ziegler appear to enjoy the thunderous applause they receive when they cross the finish line.

"What tugs at your heart is when you see a runner coming in late, and all these people from different teams and communities gather at the finish line and clap and cheer for them to finish," Michael Ziegler said. "It's huge for kids to hear that and you can see it on their faces. That's what it's all about."