by Olivia Martin
LENEXA — Running a 5K at race-pace is not easy.
Especially after having undergone over 100 surgeries.
But that hasn’t stopped St. James Academy senior Zoe Schierts from competing in four years’ worth of cross-country meets.
“Zoe has run in every training session and raced in every competition with our team while she has been in high school,” said head coach Rob Harber.
“[She] is one of the most hard-working people I’ve ever known,” he added.
For most, joining the cross-country team means training for another sport or working toward a scholarship to college. But not for Schierts.
“During summer training a few years ago, one of our coaches asked the check-in question: ‘Why do you run?’” said senior cross-country teammate Sarah LaPlante. “Zoe’s answer was because each day she runs is one more day she will stay mobile.
“It’s very humbling — the reason why she does it is so much more serious [than others].”
Diagnosed with a form of cerebral palsy called “spastic displegia” as a child, Schierts’ muscles and bones are weakened by the disorder, particularly in her legs.
In middle school, Schierts’ doctor began to push her to join St. James’ cross-country team.
“There’s a lack of communication between my brain and my muscles,” said Schierts, “so they sort of spaz out and cause me some pain sometimes. Running would make my bones a lot stronger and be able to withstand [more] through my life.”
Her doctor also encouraged her to join cross-country for the social aspect.
“If you’re disabled, you feel like you’re not included in the group and you can’t contribute as much,” said Schierts. “[My doctor] didn’t want that fate for me. He wanted me to be on the cross-country team because [they] are some of the nicest people I’d ever meet.”
“[But] I sat in that doctor’s office for a good hour and cried,” she continued. “I was a 25-minute miler.”
Despite her apprehension, Schierts joined the cross-country team and greatly improved during her career. She broke many personal records and ended on a high note, setting a new 5K (3.1 miles) personal-best time of 38:49.20 in her final race.
“It’s great,” said Schierts, “but I wouldn’t have gotten there without my teammates and my coaches and my family and all kinds of people.”
Leading by example
The love of running was a learning process for Schierts, with her junior year the turning point.
Schierts realized she had two options in approaching cross-country: either feel sorry for herself in her disability or do her absolute best despite her limitations.
Despite being the last to finish every one of her races — and falling often — she chose the latter . . . over and over again.
“[Running] became less of a selfish thing and more of asking how I’m going to give and help other people on my team,” said Schierts. “Perspective changes everything.”
From that point on, Schierts became a visible leader on the team — to the point of being chosen as a team captain by her teammates this year.
“It was never a goal of mine,” she said. “It was just something that happened. [I] thank Jesus for this amazing blessing.”
But for the team, Schierts was an obvious choice for captain.
“Seeing [Schierts] work so hard and be so determined while being positive throughout really inspires me,” said LaPlante. “If she can do the workouts and give so much effort, it makes me think that I can give more effort, too.”
Today, Schierts and running are nearly inseparable.
“I cannot envision my life without running,” she said. “If I don’t go on a run, then it’s not a good day!”
An opportunity to recognize Christ
Running has taught Schierts, the team and coaches how to physically and spiritually accompany each other.
“I used to run with Zoe a lot when she first started, just to give her somebody to run with,” said St. James cross-country coach Julie Becker. “Often, we would pray while we ran.
“I think she has brought me closer to Mary and my own faith,” added Becker. “That never-give-up attitude of hers is a Mary thing.”
Awareness of the pain of running as an opportunity to recognize Christ present has opened the whole team to the needs of others.
And they look to Schierts as exemplary.
“One thing we always do as a team and that I encourage others to do is to say Hail Marys or say prayers for somebody else who is really suffering,” said Schierts.
“We have plenty of people who really need prayers,” she continued. “It reminds me that my pain is very small and insignificant compared with other people’s pain.
“I look to the cross a lot. This is the least I can do for Jesus.”
The act of running has also renewed for Schierts the memory of her late mother, who passed away when Schierts was 9 years old.
“Whenever I run, I feel weirdly connected to my mom,” she said. “Sometimes, I can sort of feel her presence there. Sometimes, I’ll pray to her while I’m running.”
Next year, Schierts plans to study pre-physical therapy at the University of Central Missouri in Lee’s Summit. And, of course, she will keep on running.