by Todd Habiger
OVERLAND PARK — Jude Nickson, 9, a member of the Curé of Ars CYO cross-country team, is just like most runners — highly competitive with a strong work ethic and a desire to get better every time he runs.
There is one difference, though. Jude is blind.
Jude was born with bilateral microphthalmia, a condition in which the eyes are abnormally small. In Jude’s case, the eyes were not formed properly in the womb.
“He has no vision and no light perception,” said his mother Joanna Nickson.
Jude’s condition was discovered shortly after his birth and was a shock to her and her husband Matt.
“We had to rely on our faith more than we ever imagined,” she said. “It allowed our family to grow closer together and closer to God through the gift of Jude.”
Joanna said the family thought everything would change with Jude’s diagnosis.
But to her surprise, things stayed mostly the same.
Jude, now a fourth grader at Trailwood Elementary School in Overland Park, is in his second year of cross-country. He has an infectious smile, a quick wit and a bit of spunk.
The Nicksons, members of Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood, have five children — all active in various sports. The family wanted something that Jude could call his own. They tried T-ball, but realized that wouldn’t be a long-term sport. They also tried wrestling, but Jude didn’t love it.
Then, one day, Joanna stumbled upon an announcement that Curé of Ars CYO was offering cross-country starting in third grade. She and Matt thought that this just might be the perfect fit for Jude — and he was all for it.
“It’s fun,” Jude said. “When you get better, it’s fun. And the more you do it, the more fun it is.”
“He really desires to do activities and to compete against peers and to compete in something that he is of equal to his peers,” Joanna said.
But it wasn’t without its challenges. For one, as Jude was growing up, learning to walk and run, he didn’t have, what Joanna calls, a “true run.”
“Our physical therapist said that a true run is when you’re elevated off the ground for a momentary second — when both of your legs are off the ground,” she said. “So, he really didn’t have a true run until the year before he started cross-country. For all the other third and fourth graders that started cross-country with Jude, they had been running since they were 18 months old. Jude just has a lot bigger learning curve when it comes to running.”
There were also issues with Jude’s form and overcoming some fears.
“Without vision, he tends to lean back and obviously he was pretty fearful when he first started that he was going to hit something,” Joanna added.
“When I started out, yeah,” Jude interrupts. “Right now, I’m not.”
Two of Jude’s coaches, Robbie and Julie Overlease, have known him since he was born.
“To be his coaches is really special. He’s an amazing young boy,” Julie said.
And Jude has the same strong feelings about his coaches.
“My favorite thing about cross- country is probably my coaches,” he said.
Jude said his coaches have taught him a lot about being a runner and how to improve.
“They’ve told me a lot of strategies — like taking longer strides when I run and leaning forward,” he said.
Robbie said that Jude is at a disadvantage because of his lack of sight but is convinced that, with time, Jude can overcome that.
“It’s just so difficult when you’re running cross-country and can’t see the change in the terrain ahead of you,” he said. “He can’t run with the reckless abandon that other kids run with. That’s what we’ve been trying to help him with, to try to unlock the potential that he has. He can go a lot faster than what he goes now.”
While Jude can’t see, he does have a set of eyes on the course in the form of his guide — who happens to be his mother.
Joanna was the natural choice to be Jude’s guide since she was a cross- country runner in her high school days.
“She was horrible,” Jude blurts out with a devilish grin.
“I am not very fast, but I enjoy the mental aspect of running and being able to push myself,” Joanna said, smiling at Jude.
So, when Jude practices, Joanna practices, too.
“We have a good understanding of each other and our frustrations and the accomplishments that we want,” she said. “There have been times where I’ve been frustrated and pushed him to run faster because I know that he can. And there have been times when I’ve been kind of tired and he will say, ‘Mom, you’ve got to do this today. We have to push through. We have practice.’”
Joanna guides Jude with a short rope. Communication is the key to their success. Joanna calls out obstacles, turns, dips and changes in terrain.
“A lot of it is me describing what we are about to go through,” she said.
Another part of guiding is staying in sync.
“It’s about me getting in sync with him,” Joanna said. “Keeping pace where he’s pacing. Watching our feet. Getting our breaths. If he’s working way harder than me, then we have to make adjustments.”
Jude admits that his mother is a pretty good guide. But that’s not to say he doesn’t have some complaints.
For one, he doesn’t like when she says, “Let’s go, baby.” He also thinks his mother sometimes gets a little too excited. He particularly objects to her celebratory dancing.
As a fourth-grade runner, Jude runs the half-mile. His best time is 4 minutes and 21 seconds.
Next year, as a fifth grader, Jude will run the mile. Joanna plans to continue to be Jude’s guide, but wonders how long she can keep up with her son.
“He’s going to out-pace me pretty soon,” she said. “I’m not very fast and as he’s going farther, he’s getting a lot faster.”
But she’s OK with that. She mostly loves the fact that he’s found a sport he enjoys — one that allows him to be with and compete with his friends.
“Running with him is one my greatest joys as a mother,” she said. “I love being able to be with him and share in the struggles and in the success.”