Meet Kayleigh Williamson, the first woman with Down syndrome to complete the Austin Half Marathon

Kayleigh Williamson receives high-fives at a water stop during the Austin Half Marathon. Courtesy of Kayleigh Williamson

AUSTIN, Texas -- Kayleigh Williamson is relatively new to running. But despite training seriously for only about a year, the 27-year-old finished her first half marathon in mid-February. What makes her accomplishment stand out is that she is the only person with Down syndrome ever to run in -- and complete -- the Austin Half Marathon.

The experience was an emotional one for Williamson, who said she cried at the finish line as her friends handed her flowers, and it proved to be even more transformative for her mother, Sandy, who has seen just how much Kayleigh's quality of life has improved over the past year.

"The running community and everyone connected to it has been so welcoming," she said with tears in her eyes during an interview at RunLab Austin, where Kayleigh trains. "It has given us a home in a world where it isn't so easy to find one."

It is a community that, unfortunately, the majority of people with Down syndrome are not part of. According to The National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability, 58 percent of children with Down syndrome do not meet the guideline of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day. Children with Down syndrome often become more inactive as they age, so this is even more problematic for adults with the condition.

Part of the reason for this is the other health problems that often come with Down syndrome, such as hypothyroidism, sleep disorders, anxiety, depression and poor muscle tone. Williamson has Graves' disease, an autoimmune condition that affects her thyroid, and was prediabetic, which means she had higher-than-normal blood sugar, until recently. Last year, she had to have her spleen removed after it was discovered that she had a severely low blood platelet count. Although running isn't a cure, it can help alleviate some of these conditions.

"The health benefits [for Kayleigh] have been amazing," Sandy says. "She sleeps better -- her sleep apnea has improved -- and she is no longer prediabetic. These don't have to be lifelong worries if people with Down syndrome are getting good aerobic activity and solid nutrition. Running provides it."

Williamson isn't new to physical activity: She has participated in the Special Olympics Texas in basketball and swimming and has three years of Krav Maga (a form of self-defense) under her belt. But running has increased her movement -- both the amount and the stability of it -- tenfold.

"Special needs or not, it really is true that anybody really can run," says Dr. Kim Davis, D.C., ART, the founder and CEO of RunLab, who oversees Williamson's training. "It is all just working with movement and changing mindset that you are limited because you aren't a Kenyan. It doesn't have to be like that."

When Williamson was first assessed by RunLab, she was put on a plan to work on biomechanics as well as gait and stability training to help offset any weaknesses.

Dr. Davis was with Williamson throughout the 13.1-mile course on race day, even as the sweep van approached the team around mile 4, and the decision had to be made to continue or be picked up. Without hesitation, Williamson chose to keep going, and she moved to the sidewalk for the remainder of the race.

Although the majority of the water stops were broken down and on-course support was limited by the time Williamson came through, the entourage had a police escort for the last five miles of the race. When the event production company heard that Williamson was making her way to the finish, they set up the finish line again for her, and the Austin Marathon broadcast Williamson's finish on its Facebook page. She crossed the finish line in 6:22:57 and did a little dance as she completed the race.

"Before the race, my concern wasn't what people thought but if they would tell her she had to be 'swept.' As a mom, I didn't want to see my child in the position to possibly fail," Sandy says. "The offer was made, and she said, 'No.' That changed the way I saw it for Kayleigh. When you've dealt with a whole lifetime of fighting to get things for your child, and you have this whole team excited to work -- and run -- with her? Just like everyone else, we all have things, mental or physical or both, that if we could just get past those, we could accomplish them. Kayleigh has."

Next up, Williamson will toe the start line at the Statesman Cap 10K, the largest 10K in Texas, on April 23. She plans to return to the Austin Half Marathon next year as part of the Austin Runner's Club Distance Challenge, a series of five races between October and February, to get the coveted Finisher's Jacket. She was unable to finish all of the races this year and plans to return every year until she has her jacket.

On Tuesday, the United Nations will officially recognize the fifth annual World Down Syndrome Day -- and Sandy Williamson has one hope for that day.

"If for just one day, the world sees the determination our family members have in overcoming obstacles that many of us would never be willing to attempt," Sandy says. "[I hope] they get a glimpse into this amazing community that treasures the value of family and friendships in a true, unconditional way."