Terence Downey received a thunderous ovation moments after he came charging across the finish line during a recent cross-country meet at Oak Ridge Park in Clark, New Jersey.
No, the sophomore at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School didn't win the race.
But this wasn't a race about place. Downey's race was a triumph of the human spirit!
Downey, who finished seventh in the tri-meet vs. Johnson and Koinonia Academy on Sept. 24, ran 18:54 over the 5K course, a huge personal best that earned him a varsity letter. He had never broken 20 minutes before.
Countless runners achieve personal bests all across the country during every cross-country season.
But, how many of them do it just 33 days after heart surgery?
That's right, Downey had heart surgery on Aug. 22!
Right after the race, Scotch Plains-Fanwood Coach Jeff Koegel went over the results with his team, something he rarely does on race day. But there's no way this could wait.
"I usually wait until the day after a meet to go over the race and times and stuff, but since it was such a big thing we got everybody together and we cooled down and went over the times,'' said Koegel. "And when I got to Terence, everyone stopped and applauded. It was just total elation. Everyone cheered for him. We all know what he's been through. It was a really great moment for Terence and for the whole team.''
"That day was a great moment and was really amazing,'' said Downey. "I had all my teammates hyping me up that I was going to get under 19, and to do it just made me feel so happy. It means a lot to me because I've been working hard everyday, so just to finally get over this obstacle and be able to push myself to my full extent feels really good.''
The emotional and memorable day didn't end there.
When Terence and his older brother, Chris, a senior on the team, returned to the high school after the meet, they were picked up by their father, Noel.
When Noel heard Terence's time, he was elated. He couldn't wait to get home and tell his wife, Kathy.
What happened next was a moment the Downey family will never forget.
CHEERS AND TEARS
Kathy Downey was in the kitchen when her husband, Terence, and Chris shared the news with her about Terence's performance.
"It was very emotional,'' said Mrs. Downey. "I was so happy for Terence, and there were tears. We knew Terence was capable of it, but we didn't think he could be this far along this quickly. For him to come back the way he has and run his best time, a varsity time, it was like a dream come true. The perseverance and determination that he's shown has been remarkable. He loves running and he always focused on the positive. To see his happiness was the best feeling a parent can have. It was a gift.''
"It was cheers and tears,'' said Mr. Downey. "It's been a roller coaster ride, and we couldn't have dreamed of this outcome.''
"It was just such a special day because we all knew how much Terence went through,'' said Chris Downey. "It just means the world to all of us to see him doing so well.''
The 16 year-old Downey, who is a triplet, was born with an extra nerve in his heart that randomly triggered a rapid heart rate, which spiked as high as 260 beats per minute. But it happened so seldom when he was younger that it wasn't viewed as an issue.
"He had some episodes when he was younger and we didn't know what it was,'' said Mr. Downey. "It was so random back then. We wouldn't hear about it for months, so we didn't think it was an issue.''
But the rapid heart rate episodes began to happen more frequently when Downey began running cross-country last year.
"We started to see it happening more as he started to pursue cross-country,'' said Mr. Downey, who was inspired to get into running himself because of Chris and Terence. "So freshman year it became more common. It was random with no prediction as to when it would occur. But it would occur while he was running. It was in direct connection with the sport. So it was tough.
"When he'd warm up or be in the middle of a run, or at the end of a run, it could happen. The worst part would be in the middle of race. You can't run through it. Typically it would last five minutes and he'd have to shut it down and stop running. Whenever he'd strap his sneakers on it was like what's going to happen today,'' said Mr. Downey.
Mrs. Downey said it was gut wrenching to see her son have to deal with this.
"No pun intended, but it was heartbreaking to watch him go through it,'' said Mrs. Downey. "He'd come home and say it happened again.''
"He'd come back from practice and his head would be down after having another episode,'' said Mr. Downey.
The Downeys brought their son to a cardiologist, who advised the family that Terence carry a portable EKG heart monitor wherever he went to capture images whenever he had an episode to determine what was causing the rapid heart beat. Then they downloaded an EKG App onto Terence's iPhone.
"It (the monitor) was the size of a credit card and he put it on the back of his phone that he wore on a special belt we got for him,'' said Mrs. Downey. "It had two squares on it and when he'd have an episode he'd put two fingers on it and it captured what was going on with his heart. It would show up as a PDF and he'd email it to the doctor.''
After capturing a few episodes, Downey was diagnosed with supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) in February.
With SVT, a rapid heartbeat starts in the top chambers of the heart, the atria. When electrical signals in the atria fire off early, the atria contracts too soon. That interrupts the main electrical signal coming from the SA node. This results in the heart beating very quickly through an abnormal and separate pathway. Episodes can be brought on by physical exertion.
But through it all, Downey never considered stopping. He loved to run too much.
"We talked to him about it, and he said he wanted to keep at it,'' said Mr. Downey. "He decided to keep fighting through it until we could figure out what it was.''
"It wasn't really dangerous for me,'' said Terence. "It was more of nuisance and interfered with what I wanted to do.''
There were a few different ways to treat Downey's condition.
"The choices are you don't do anything, you can go on heart medication -- but I wasn't very happy putting a 16-year-old on heart medication with all the side effects -- or you can have surgery," said Mrs. Downey. "We had it all explained to us that it's very successful and they've been doing it for about 30 years, so we decided to go ahead with the surgery. We were all very nervous about it, but we knew this was the right thing to do.''
The surgery Downey underwent on Aug. 22 at New York Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital in Manhattan was called a Catheter Ablation. During this procedure, a catheter (a narrow wire) was inserted into an artery in Downey's neck and two through veins in the groin area.
The catheter is guided up to the heart, and the nerve is electrocuted to deaden it. The surgery lasted about two and half hours and Downey was able to go home the same day.
"I was nervous, but I was also actually looking forward to it because I had a good feeling that my life would be so much better after the surgery,'' said Terence. "I'm just so thankful that it was a safe surgery and everything went well and went fast.''
THE COMEBACK AND THE NICKNAME
Downey couldn't wait to lace up his running shoes again.
On the same night after the surgery, he sent Coach Koegel a text.
"He said the surgery was a success, that he was okay, and everything went well,'' said Koegel. "And he said that he'd be back training in a week. Running is such a passion for him. He was itching to get back out there.''
Then the day after the surgery, Downey came by practice.
"I wanted to see my teammates and coaches, and when I got there Coach Koegel said, "Hey, it's the Cardiac Kid.''
"It was something that had a double meaning, literally and figuratively, and it has kind of stuck ever since," said Koegel.
Downey asked Koegel when he could start training again and race with the rest of the Raiders pack.
"He got cleared to run around Labor Day and we held him out of the first couple meets because we didn't want a setback,'' said Koegel. "He's a runner who had a heart issue, so it was certainly a concern for me. We wanted to take it slow at first."
"We started easy with road loops. We built the mileage up and I told him we had to get a workout in before he could race. We put him into a quad meet at Tamaques Park in Westfield (Sept. 17 - 26 days after surgery). He ran 18:32 for 3-miles and he said it felt great to be back.''
Then at the Bernie Magee Invitational at Greystone (Sept. 21 - 30 days after surgery), Downey ran 19:13, a PR at the time.
Noel Downey went to the Magee meet and couldn't believe his eyes.
"He was coming down the ridge that leads down near the finish line and I couldn't believe it,'' said Mr. Downey. "He was up straight and had a strong running position. I was amazed at the speed and the form that he had. And he actually had a strong kick at the end. It was unbelievable.'
After the race, Downey told Coach Koegel that he wanted to break 19 on Tuesday.
"He asked me if I felt he could do it,'' said Koegel. "I told him I thought he could.''
When the gun went off on Sept. 24 at Oak Ridge, Downey stayed with a big pack of teammates, including his brother. They maintained a pace that ensured a sub 19 time.
After Downey stopped the clock at 18:54, it was total euphoria among Raider Nation.
Koegel is blown away by what Downey has accomplished.
"How many 16 years old have heart surgery, come back training 10 days later, and then run a PR in their third race of the season,'' said Koegel. "He never broke 20 before, and breaking 19 was his goal for the end of the season, and he's already done it. After the race he said his new goal was to get under 18:30.''
Downey was moved by the outpouring of emotion and support that his teammates, friends and coaches displayed after he broke the 19-minute barrier.
"It's great to have such a great connection and bond with my team,'' said Downey. "They know I have their back and I know they have my back. My team is like one big family."
Downey can't believe how much his time has dropped since the surgery.
"It's crazy how much I improved after the surgery,'' said Downey. "I'm insanely surprised. I never imagined how much the surgery would help me. In the past I'd run in the low 20's and I'd be giving it my all. Now I can go out and run a sub 19 and still feel like I have more energy left and can push more. This all wouldn't be possible without the hard work I did before the surgery and the surgery itself.
"And it's not just a physical improvement, it's also a mental improvement. Before the surgery I'd be running and I'd always have the thought that I can't push myself because I could have this heart episode that could happen and I can't give it my all. Now, I can give it my all and show people what I can really do.
"This is just the start for me. Now I want to go below 18:30 and keep getting better from here.''
Downey's remarkable comeback has inspired his teammates, who are in awe of what he's accomplished since the surgery.
"Terence is very inspirational,'' said senior Maritza Garcia. "It reminds us what cross-country is all about. It's all about getting back up on the horse and setting goals. For Terence to break 19 is amazing.''
"To have heart surgery and come back and PR and break 19 is pretty inspirational,'' said sophomore Brenna Sullivan. "A lot of people on our team are coming back from injury, and seeing him come back from heart surgery and PR inspires all us.''
"He's a great role model for our team,'' said senior Catherine Buren. "He represents what our team is all about and what cross-country is all about. It's grit and hard work and I really don't think people understand the struggle and hard work and that goes into cross-country. So for Terence to go through something like that and show up here everyday and work hard means a lot to us and shows how much he cares. He makes us all want it that much more.''
"Terence is the face of cross-country,'' said sophomore Ruby Calabrese. "His hard work and determination has helped all of us get better.''
"Despite all the hurdles he's had, he's gotten over all of them and he got a varsity time,'' said senior Harrison Mills."It's pretty remarkable.''
Koegel said Downey has become a role model for the team.
"I'm so proud of Terence,'' said Koegel. "I can't say enough what a great kid he is. He's been example to everyone.Terence embodies what the sport is all about.We have runners who roll an ankle and they never come back or they milk it. I tell them that Terence had heart surgery and he's out here running. What do you have that's on that level? He's a young guy and now all the sudden he's a role model, and then he'll grow into a senior leader one day. His brother, Chris, said Terence is his hero, and that's really says something. The oldest brother is looking up to his younger brother.''
Koegel wishes he could inject Downey's toughness and work ethic into the DNA of all his runners.
"I've had guys who ran 16:15 who didn't have Terence's work ethic," said Koegel. "He's had adversity in his life and has dealt with it with extreme maturity. Terence is such a great kid, and his family and parents are wonderful people. He's that kid that shows up everyday and does everything he's supposed to do. If he doesn't PR, he apologizes. He's so coachable. I wish his attitude was contagious. He always stayed positive through everything.''
Mr. Downey said he's filled with pride to see his son overcame such a big obstacle and inspire his teammates and friends.
"Sometimes you don't hear about younger kids having long term goals and having adversity that they have to push through,'' said Mr. Downey. "To see Terence in a situation where he can help inspire others is probably the best thing you can hear as a parent. It's just wonderful. Seeing one of your kids overcome something that's really been keeping them down, to conquer that and achieve their goals and move forward, and help others move forward means everything. What more can you ask for.''
Chris Downey marvels are what his brother has overcome.
"This was all really hard for him because it (the surgery) was the end of summer training and everyone was at the peak of their training with just two weeks before our first meet. But he stuck with it and built himself back up and got all the way back. He just took it one day at a time and worked hard.''
Chris isn't surprised by his what brother has done.
"It's not a surprise to me because he's always been a very dedicated person throughout his whole life, and I knew when he came back he'd strive hard to achieve his PR's and get his times as low as possible.''
Chris admires his brother's perseverance.
"The majority of people don't have to go through what Terence did,'' said Chris. "And the fact that he had to go through that and battle his way back from that is really remarkable to me. Honestly, if I had to go through that I don't know how I'd cope with that. It speaks to his toughness and how and exceeding everyone's expectations for how he'd come back. It's really inspiring to me. Anytime I think I have something challenging like maybe I'm a little sore from a workout or a little tired during a race, it reminds me you can get through anything if you just set your mind to it. No matter how big a hurdle might be, you can definitely get over it.''
Koegel has coached and taught thousands of athletes and students during his 24 years at Scotch Plains-Fanwood.
"I have people ask me all the time if I remember every kid I've coached and taught," said Koegel. "You can't remember them all. Lots of kids come through your life, and you remember the really good stories and the really bad stories. This is a first for me and I hope this isn't something that happens to someone else, but now I can always share this story about Terence, and how he dealt with and overcame adversity. This is a special story that none of us will ever forget.''
NEVER GIVE UP
Downey has advice for anyone who is dealing with adversity in their life and is faced with obstacles they fear they can't overcome.
"If you really want something, you can get it,'' he said. "You just have to put in the time and energy and never give up. You have to have hope, and have to want it and just put in that grit and never stop believing in yourself. That's what it's all about."