PLNU alumni Erik Weber doesn’t run away from his struggles. He runs through them. At the 25th annual PLNU Special Olympics, Weber showed his teammate, 11-year-old Philip Revak, how to do the same.
“What I did today with Philip in the 5K was—I ran his race, I didn’t run my race,” Weber said. “I ran his race with him so that I could pay it forward and help him to succeed as a person.”
It’s not all about winning, but Weber is no stranger to being first. Gold medals and blue ribbons aside, he was the first person with Autism to graduate from Cal Western Law School and pass his BAR exam on the first try. Now, as a special education lawyer, Weber helps kids with autism, like Revak, on and off the track.
With Weber’s help, Revak became the youngest person to ever run the Special Olympics 5K and win the gold medal.
“When you ran with me, what did you like best about it, during the race?”
“The part where I won.”
“What about the fans cheering you on?”
“Yeah that was good too.”
Weber runs 13 miles every other day and hasn’t slowed down since his first Special Olympics in 1999, when he was just nine years old. As a veteran athlete, he shines a light on his young teammates and celebrates their accomplishments.
“When you find a way to tap into the talent and gain the trust of individuals with special needs, anything is possible,” Weber said. “Just come out and watch.”
On Saturday April 21, over 250 PLNU student volunteers did more than just watch. The PLNU women’s soccer and volleyball teams served lunch, student leaders packed goodie bags for all the athletes, and everyone cheered.
Executive student leaders, senior Haeli Gutierrez and junior Renee Crick said that the impact PLNU volunteers make goes beyond the day’s events and the determination of the athletes inspires everyone.
“Alumni volunteers and athletes come back almost every single year,” Gutierrez said. “They always come back because of their buddy or because of the experience they had here. Whether they win or lose, they always wanna come back to try again next year.”
After 25 years, PLNU’s Special Olympics is the largest and longest running event of its kind in Southern California. Crick said that athletes travel from all over southern California and range in ages from eight to however long they want to compete.
PLNU professor and event director, Susan Rogers, said that this year they trained 70 volunteers beforehand on how to “embrace these athletes,” use inclusive language and mentor them effectively.
“You watch the ‘Erik Webers’ that needed mentoring and are now mentoring someone else,” Rogers said. “That to me was one of my favorite moments.”
Rogers has been apart of the PLNU Special Olympics for about 19 years, and she knows how competitive athletes like Weber are. During the 5K, she turned to Weber’s mom and the Skybirds coach, Sandi Weber, completely awestruck.
“OK, that’s not competitive Erik,” Rogers said.
“I know, that’s mentoring Erik,” Sandi Weber said.
“I definitely found a lot of positive role models in the racing community and I get to pay it forward by helping kids like him [Revak] and other younglings, other Skybirds,” Weber said.
The first time Weber ran, and felt the wind whip across his face, he said it was the same sensations he felt riding on the back of his father’s motorcycle. Underneath his gold medals and racing shirt, Weber wears his father’s Marine dog tags close to his heart everyday.
When Weber was diagnosed with Autism, his father moved his office business into their home so he could help his mother support him. Two years after his father, Richard Weber, passed away in 1997, his mother signed him up for the Special Olympics at the age of nine. She saw the dramatic impact this event had on her son.
“Well, before running, he was shy, kind of like…” she looked across the soccer field left and right, “wherever Philip is, he’s like a mini Erik.”
Although Weber’s relay teammates are half his size, and more than half his age, he said he sees a boost in confidence when they race. In the final relay race of the day, Revak passed the baton to Weber which brought the Skybirds a second place finish.
In the end, Weber knew the medals didn’t matter.
As teams pulled down their canopies and volunteers cleared away the Special Olympics banners, Erik scanned the track. With hands on his hips and head held high, Weber sighed with a smile.
“The happiest moment of my Special Olympics career so far is Team Skybirds and being able to help them become their own heroes and building champions along the way.”