FOR the first couple of weeks, Andrew Lemoncello would head into the hills above Flagstaff, Arizona, take to the trails where he trains and break down in tears.
He had just become the proud father of a baby daughter, but his fears for little Isla, who was born with Down Syndrome, overcame the Scot and his wife, Julie.
Like many, he didn’t understand what it meant. He worried about Isla’s health. He wondered how long she would live. He asked himself whether he and Julie were destined to be carers for the rest of their lives. He was guilty of the same misconceptions that most of the population have about a genetic disorder with which one in every 691 babies in the United States is born.
Now, with the help of support groups, other families in the same situation and a wealth of research into the subject, Lemoncello knows better. He is able to rationalise his daughter’s condition. Sure, she is different, but isn’t everybody? Yes, she will take a particular route through life, at a particular pace, but don’t we all?
Isla arrived in June. Within four weeks, Lemoncello was back on these shores, becoming the British 10,000 metres champion and winning the BUPA Great Edinburgh Run, a remarkable achievement in the circumstances. It was, he says, thanks partly to his daughter’s determination, which has served to galvanise him.
“It’s definitely inspired me. She’s such a hard-working baby. We have physical therapy with her every week and just seeing her develop, reach new milestones, it’s incredible to watch. When I’m in a race or a hard workout, I’m thinking ‘my baby’s working a lot harder than I am. I’m just out here running’. I always keep that in my mind.
“The first few weeks were emotionally draining. The first couple of days, I would go out for a run and suddenly break down and cry, just worrying about Isla’s future. It was a hard time but, after we started talking about it and getting more information, it was so much easier. We realised that it wasn’t going to be the way we thought it was. The support systems were phenomenal. They helped us through everything.”
Lemoncello is anxious to repay those who have supported his family. After competing in today’s Bank of Scotland Great Scottish Run, the 30-year-old will return to his home in Arizona, where he will begin preparations for an unusual world record attempt. On 19 October, at a shopping mall in Phoenix, he will try to raise money for the National Down Syndrome Society by running the fastest half-marathon ever recorded on a treadmill.
“I just wanted to give something back. The doctors were very helpful, as were the social workers, and we were put in touch with other families who have children with Down Syndrome. That was the best thing. You realise that it’s not as rare as you think. You realise that everyone else is going through the same thing, and that it’s not the end of the world.
“It’s going to be fine. There are certain health conditions that come with it, but Isla was lucky. She had a couple of holes in her heart, but they’re healing by themselves. She had immature lungs so she was on oxygen for a while, but she grew out of those. Now, she’s just this normal little baby. We couldn’t be happier.”
Lemoncello’s aim was to raise $10,000 [£6,240], a target that he has already smashed. If he can educate people in the process, so much the better. October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month in the US, a time for charities to dispel a few popular myths. People with Down Syndrome are not victims who die young after a life of exclusion from society. They are athletes, models, restaurant owners, who participate in the community. Their life expectancy is increasing all the time.
“Before, I had the same thoughts that everyone else probably had, but the one thing you find out very quickly is that they are perfectly capable of most of the things that you and I are capable of. A lot of the time, it isn’t holding them back. They’re working, they’re getting married, they’re living on their own.
“Kids have milestones that you want them to hit, but Isla may take a little bit longer, that’s all. Which is fine. You just have to go at her pace. The biggest thing we’ve learned is that you don’t treat your child any different. You still push them and make sure you do all the things you would do with any child. You want to make sure they’re the best person they can be.”
Coming to terms with the changes in his life has enabled Lemoncello to get on with it. His fund-raising efforts mean a lot to him, as would a place in the Guinness Book of Records, but today there is a race to be run in the country where he grew up. Born in Tokyo to an American father and a Scottish mother, he attended Stirling University after spending his boyhood years in St Andrews. His daily run along the Old Course and back across the West Sands remains his favourite.
Lemoncello moved to the US in 2004 after gaining a scholarship to Florida State University. This weekend’s visit to Scotland, where his parents still live, is a flying one. When he arrived on Friday, the plan was to stay on US time. He would sleep through yesterday and spend last night in his Glasgow hotel room, watching a box set of Still Game.
He relishes the prospect of running in front of a home crowd, just as he does competing alongside Haile Gebrselassie, the star attraction in today’s half-marathon. “It’s such a privilege to be able to line up against a runner like him. He’s 40 years old and still running 60 minutes. I truly believe he is the best distance runner the world has ever seen. You just stand there and think, ‘OK, I’m going to have to put everything into this just to get close’. He is such a nice guy as well. We have the same agent so I can chat to him. It’s great to be able to talk to one of your idols.”
Lemoncello is hoping to trim a few seconds off his personal best, while also getting a taste of the Glasgow crowds that will be such a feature of next summer’s Commonwealth Games. There, he will compete in the 10,000m, assuming he secures the qualifying time in April. “I thought about the marathon originally but it would just be a phenomenal thing to run at Hampden Park in front of a Scottish crowd.”
For Lemoncello, who has too often been frustrated on the big stage, everything is geared towards Glasgow 2014. The former steeplechaser withdrew from the Commonwealth Games in 2006 and 2010 due to other commitments. Although he competed in the 2008 Olympic Games, the injuries that have plagued him in recent years meant that he could not qualify for London 2012. Despite a twinge or two of nerve pain in his leg, he is determined to let nothing stop him next summer.
“After the next couple of weeks, if my leg is still giving me trouble, I’ll just take a break because I don’t want to risk anything that might force me to miss the Commonwealths. Ever since it was announced a few years ago, it’s been the absolute pinnacle of what I want to achieve.”
If he continues to be as motivated as he is now, he will reach it as well.
• To make a donation to the National Down Syndrome Society visit Andrew Lemoncello’s donation page at http://tinyurl.com/lh4aaz8