Gwena and Gerry Herman were driving along Interstate 95 when they learned of the win.
The boy who had joined their Baltimore athletic program at 2 years old and who had trained with it through high school had won the men’s wheelchair race at the Boston Marathon. Not only had Daniel Romanchuk taken first place, the 20-year-old had become the youngest person ever and the first American in 26 years to do so.
“Yes, yes, yes,” Gwena Herman posted on her Facebook page. “So so happy for him!!!”
Then 10 minutes later: “So so exciting. Daniel is one of the hardest working athletes we have ever had come out of the program!!”
Then three minutes later: “No sprint to the finish this time. Total domination!”
The Boston Marathon is known for showcasing the human body’s potential and in that sense, Romanchuk’s victory was no different. It showed an athlete at the top of his game. His 1 hour, 21 minutes and 36 second finish was the culmination of years of training and discipline.
His win also showed something else. It showed the significance of a phrase he heard often while growing up and training in Maryland and which he has been known to reference in interviews: “Teach kids they can before someone tells them they can’t.”
That is the motto of the Bennett Blazers, the adaptive sports program at the Kennedy Krieger Institute that Gwena and Gerry Herman started in 1989. The program, which is a chapter of Disabled Sports USA, has helped hundreds of children with physical disabilities participate, and many times excel, in sports they might not have been able to try otherwise.
“Often times, parents come to our program, and all they’ve been getting is negative news,” Gerry Herman told me. Those parents have been told mostly about what their children can’t do. Herman said he gets to tell them what they can do.
They can play wheelchair basketball and wheelchair softball. They can swim and compete in sled hockey.
They can win big and important races.
Romanchuk’s mother, Kim Romanchuk, credits the sports program with helping her son become the athlete who won the Chicago and New York marathons before Boston.
“That sports program played a huge role in his development and his outlook on his abilities,” she said.
It allowed him to try different sports and see athletes who came before him form independent lives, she said. He saw them go to college, get jobs, start families — and sometimes compete on professional levels.
The program also counts among its alumni Tatyana McFadden, a five-time Boston Marathon champion who, despite a fall Monday, finished second in the women’s wheelchair race. A photo Romanchuk’s family shared with me shows Daniel at about 5 years old practicing alongside McFadden in a parking lot.
Herman said he and his wife weren’t able to watch the two race in Boston — and instead kept track of them through social media from their car — because they were in Virginia Beach scouting for a place to teach adaptive surfing.
Kim Romanchuk, who was at the finish line when her son crossed it, said more than anything, what she wants people to see in her son’s victory is “hope in difficult circumstances.”
“What can first appear impossible, or just too hard, isn’t with the help of God,” she said. “It can be not just surviving but thriving and having just an incredible life.”
She was 17 weeks pregnant with her son when she and her husband learned he had spina bifida, a condition that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly. At the time, the couple was living in Mount Airy and raising two other children who didn’t have physical disabilities.
Shock was followed by an “adjustment period,” Romanchuk said, and then an acceptance of “it was just going to be a different kind of journey.”
When he was younger, Daniel used braces that stretched up to his chest to walk, but traveling even short distances that way left him tired. His mother said he was 5 when he decided he only wanted to use a wheelchair, and she and her husband supported his decision.
“A misconception that is widely held is that people are wheelchair-bound,” she said. “Not at all. That’s freedom. That’s your independence.”
One major way her son benefited from the sports program, she said, is being able to try his skills in different areas before settling on racing. The equipment for different athletic activities can come at a high cost for children with disabilities, she said. Specialized wheelchairs are often needed and investing in one is not realistic for children who are still growing and families who are already facing many medical costs.
Herman said the program tries to maintain a broad inventory, but it also accepts donations through its Booster Club’s website because a new piece of equipment for a child can easily cost $3,000. Just in the past few weeks, four children joined the program, which meant finding four more sets of equipment.
Herman said the children who come to the program do so with different abilities and ambitions. Some want to play sports recreationally. Others carry high aspirations.
Daniel Romanchuk, he recalled, showed an early talent and could have pursued several sports.
“When he was 4 years old, he was already swimming at a national level,” he said. “He’s always had that determination to succeed.”
He also described Romanchuk as the type of person who is eager to give back.
Romanchuk, who now lives and trains in Illinois, has donated several of his old racing wheelchairs to the program and already five children have been able to use them.
On May 18, he also plans to come back to the program and hold a clinic for its current wheelchair racers. He will help them with their positioning and demonstrate how to use special gloves.
Herman said he will also do something else — he will show them what is possible.
After all, it wasn’t that long ago that Romanchuk was in the same place as them.
“They don’t have a real large supply of role models, people who look like them and push like them and act like them,” Herman said. “They love to be able to call him one of our own. He’s part of the Bennett Blazers family.”