Source: Des Moines Register article

Joy in running: How an Iowa teen with autism found a passion, happiness ana a home on his school’s track team

It’s not always about winning the race and funning the fastest time. … IT’s about making sure people are accomplishing things regardless of their abilities.”

ADM-Adel cross country runner Brycen Timmer, left, looks over his shoulder as coach Josh Chapman explains the practice route on Sept. 16. Credit: Bryon Houlgrave/The Register

ADEL — ADM-Adel high school cross country runner Brycen Timmer stands under a tree with his teammates. They’re waiting for practice to begin on a sunny September weekday.

Timmer leaves his spot in the shade when he notices coach Josh Chapman walking over from the parking lot.

“Hey, Coach Chapman!” Timmer yells.

Chapman smiles.

The coach can always expect a warm welcome, giant smile and big greeting from Timmer.

“Every day,” Chapman says.

Timmer, a first-year runner for the Tigers, was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 and didn’t start using words until a year later.

For years, sports never seemed like a possibility.

But Timmer has found a passion for running, a home on the ADM junior varsity track squad and a newfound family with his teammates.

“It’s not always about winning the race and running the fastest time,” Chapman said. “It’s about making sure people are accomplishing things regardless of their abilities.”

Mike and Melissa Timmer figured that would be the extent of his athletic career.

“I would have never thought he would be in a quote-unquote normal high school sport,” Mike Timmer said.

Few did until Timmer got to high school and trained for the mile run in physical education class. He struggled early on and walked part of it.

But his freshman teacher, Mary Beth Scott, pushed him to keep running.

“I’d be like, ‘Come on, Brycen, ‘you’ve got to keep running,’” Beth Scott said.

He listened. He started running more.

And more.

And over time, he made strides. Scott noticed he was faster and went farther each time they ran the mile.

Then, when the class took their test for the mile, Timmer completed the race without stopping.

And he had the top time in the class.

His teacher was amazed at the progress. She recommended his parents sign him up for cross country.

“I was very surprised,” Melissa Timmer said.

She thought it might be a good idea, though.

So Brycen and Mike Timmer started training.

Brycen Timmer and his dad prepare for his first cross country season

His parents still harbored concerns. They worried about letting him go out on a course alone and possibly getting lost. The courses, which are 3.1 miles long, are usually at parks or on an open campus but may have different surfaces to cross, like bridges, concrete or gravel. They feared something may happen to him, and other runners might not know how to help.

Some fears were alleviated when they learned Chapman biked with the team during practice to keep tabs on runners. Mike Timmer figured he could do the same as his son trained during the summer. So two or three days a week during the summer, Timmer would go for a run and his father would follow on a bike.

They started off slow and went about 10 minutes a run. They slowly tacked on more time. Every time got easier.

“I could see that he was getting better and better each time that we’d run,” Mike Timmer said. “It was nice. It was fun. It was a great bonding moment.”

The hope was to get him running 3 miles by the time the ADM team started practice later that summer. By the end of July, he reached that mark. His parents planned for him to run two home meets during the cross country season.

But Timmer blew past that expectation when he completed the Adel Sweet Corn Festival 5K run in August. He ran with his friend Brayden Rynearson, who kept pushing him during the race.

Melissa Timmer said her son smiled the entire race, all the way to the finish line, where a group of supporters was waiting and cheering him on — including his future teammates.

“It was pretty exciting,” ADM runner Shay Holdmeyer said.

Timmer, who had averaged just over eight minutes a mile, showed that he could run a cross country race. The performance was so impressive that his mother decided two meets probably wasn’t going to be enough.

They knew he could do more.

“I did tell, Josh: ‘I think I want him to go to all the meets because I think he actually can do this,'” Melissa Timmer said.

He could.

And he would.

First race means fear, excitement — and smiles

A wide range of emotions filled Melissa Timmer on Sept. 3 as she waited for ADM’s season-opening meet in Pella to start. She was excited, but also nervous that something could happen. And she was afraid.

She wasn’t worried about his time. She knew he didn’t even care where he finished. Running was the most important thing. What she feared was that she might be putting him in a scary situation.

Chapman and Mike Timmer wouldn’t be on their bikes to help him this time. Rynearson, who stayed by his side during the 5K, wouldn’t be there either.

Chapman could tell how emotional she was when they crossed paths on his way to watch the start of the race.

“Is it bad that I feel like I’m ready to throw up?” Chapman recalled her saying.

It was a big day for everyone. But while other runners were aiming for top finishes, Timmer had a different goal: Just finish.

When the race started, Timmer took off with the rest of the runners. His parents, who were standing off to the side, watched him jog by. The sight of him running with others was monumental all by itself.

“It calmed me a little bit,” Mike Timmer said.

Every time they saw their son during the race, he was with a group of runners, keeping up. His race became the highlight of the meet. By the end, his teammates had filled the finish line to wait for him. Melissa Timmer said runners from other teams joined in to cheer him on.

Mike Timmer, who spotted his son coming to the finish line, ran part of the last hill with him by his side.

Chapman fought back tears as he finished.

“I know some of his teammates, they might not have had tears but they were holding them back I’m sure because they were all just so proud of how far he’s come since the beginning of the summer,” Chapman said.

A smiling Timmer grabbed his water bottle and asked where his mom and dad were.

He wanted to celebrate the finish with them.

One goal down. Many more to go.

Timmer is still racing and still surpassing expectations.

Before every race, he and his parents set a new goal.

The first was to finish.

The second was to not get distracted by fans and cameras. Melissa Timmer noticed during his debut that he tended to look up and smile — especially at cameras.

Their goal for the third was to finish strong.

“He’s a really big inspiration for all of us,” his ADM teammate Jacob Alexander said. “It’s so cool seeing how far he came.”

Timmer has made strides in others areas of life, too. During the summer, he showed a pig at the Dallas County Fair. He just started his sixth year of playing percussion and his second year of marching band.  A sophomore, he wants to go to college and eventually work with animals.

His speech is still limited, but it’s clear how much he loves running. He’ll yell out times he’s already reached and is clearly antsy to get going when Chapman talks to the team before warmups.

“I feel happy,” Timmer said.

Tommy Birch, the Register’s sports enterprise and features reporter, has been working at the newspaper since 2008. He’s the 2018 and 2020 Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Reach him at or 515-284-8468. Follow him on Twitter @TommyBirch.