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Baranek: Autism can’t stop Andrew’s Nick Diaz from speaking with speed

Andrew's Nick Diaz (left) talks with teammate MasMarino. | Tony Baranek/Sun-Times Media

Andrew's Nick Diaz (left) talks with teammate Mason Marino. | Tony Baranek/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 8, 2013 6:13AM



I was told the answers were going to be pretty basic when I talked with Andrew senior Nick Diaz last week. And they were. This was our conversation:

Nick, you guys have a good team.

“Yeah.”

How fun is that to be a part of it?

“Good.”

You had the second-best time on the team last Saturday. How cool was that?

“Good.”

How does your mom keep up with you when she goes on your practice runs at home?

“Bike.”

Who’s faster?

“Me.”

Diaz broke into a smile. That spoke volumes.

Autism isn’t a fully understood neurological disorder. There is no textbook cause, and no cure. And there are no textbook cases.

I guess the average person, when hearing the word autism, immediately thinks of someone who rocks, avoids eye contact, doesn’t speak much, and craves structure.

Nick has been about all of those things during his young life. Speech therapy has helped with some of it. He takes special needs classes at Andrew, but has no problem socializing at lunch period with the school population.

But being on the cross country team at Andrew has brought out his best.

Diaz has been on the varsity squad since his sophomore year. For two years prior, he competed as a runner in the Special Olympics held at Illinois State University, winning the gold medal both times in his division in the mile run.

“Nick has always been very athletic,” his mom, Joan Diaz, said. “I put him in every (sports) program I could.”

She got quite an eyeopener when she watched him run in a 400-yard track event as a seventh-grader.

“I almost cried, it was so beautiful,” she said. “He had these long legs, and he was flying. Even the coaches said, when he was in seventh and eighth grade, ‘That kid should be running with high school kids. He needs to run with faster people.’ ”

After his success in the Special Olympics as a freshman representing Andrew, Joan Diaz approached cross country coach Bobby Matz about her son joining the “regular” program. Matz said yes, and it’s a decision he’ll be grateful he made for the rest of his life.

“I was nervous about being accountable for him when I had 50 kids to deal with,” Matz said. “But from Day 1 it’s never been a problem. He just runs with whichever group we assign him to.

“The kids on the team, they absolutely adore him. They put him under their wing, and they protect him.”

Especially his regular running partners juniors Mason Marino and Devyn Haseltine.

Marino said Matz approached him at the beginning of Diaz’s sophomore year and asked if he could be, sort of, his wing man on the courses.

Diaz and Marino became fast friends as well as competitors.

“He just likes to run,” Marino said. “He has fun all the time, and that’s all that matters to him.

“You just have to reassure him. All he wants to hear is that he’s doing good. He’s got a natural talent.”

Diaz’s times gradually have improved. In his first meet as a sophomore he ran the 3-mile course in 24:38 minutes. By the end of the season he had registered a 19:55. His time at the Tinley Park meet two weeks ago was 17:19, his best ever.

“He’s a fantastic runner,” Haseltine said. “He’s getting faster and faster each meet. His senior year he’s faster than me. It’s pretty amazing what he’s accomplished.

“He kind of needed a guide. People that he is closest to he’ll talk to. He’s very nice to everyone on the team. He really likes us.”

To say nothing of his mom.

“He would not be successful without his teammates,” Joan Diaz said. “Those boys look out for him every day. They overlook his disability and look out for him.”

Yep. What Devyn said. It’s all pretty amazing.



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