Andrew Peterson was born to run

SC Featured: Special Olympics runner deserves your respect (14:10)

Born with fetal alcohol syndrome, 25-year-old Andrew Peterson became a three-time Special Olympics gold medalist after his father helped him find his voice and passion. (14:10)

IT'S 6:15 A.M. on East Michigan Street in downtown Indianapolis. Nearly 50 runners gather on the steps of the Indiana War Memorial. The trying-their-best, the barely-over-the-hill and chiseled 20-somethings all flit anxiously in cross trainers and varying extremes of vibrant spandex. Stragglers file in: There are no handshakes or high-fives, but full-on embraces, as if returning from a voyage at sea.

Andrew Peterson -- roughly 5-foot-6, lean, his hair buzzed -- stretches a ropy hamstring on the lip of a plant urn while pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. He doesn't say much to those around him. The 25-year-old coughs and rubs his chest, only days removed from a cold. His father, Craig Peterson, watches on, his thick glasses fogging in the predawn chill.

Andrew and the others in the Indianapolis chapter of the November Project -- a free national fitness coalition (think CrossFit without the weights) -- circle around the group's leaders. They begin a call-and-response:

You show us some sun

Give us some heat

We'll give you a party

On Michigan Street!

Suddenly, music begins, and the runners scatter to their designated stations. Some sprint stairs, others use the urns for dips and the remaining do burpees, as the sun begins to peek over the Minton-Capehart Federal Building.

If it seems masochistic, Andrew disagrees. He's in his element as he sprints down a flight of stairs, smiling from ear to ear, despite the last hacks of his cough. "In the elite running groups, Andrew gets ignored," Craig says in a whisper. "Here, he's appreciated, he's welcomed."

When Andrew was 3 weeks old, he was found alone in a Madison County home, nearly paralyzed, born with fetal alcohol syndrome -- a condition that results from exposure to alcohol in utero. His brothers and sister were also affected, in varying degrees. It took almost 10 years of immersive physical therapy and speech therapy -- and even dance lessons -- just to get him to walk and talk functionally. As Andrew completes burpee after burpee, seemingly effortlessly, "permanent brain damage" is not a phrase that matches his grace in motion.

Craig recalls the 5-year-old boy he adopted being so physically stiff that he could barely hold a fork at dinner. Andrew would break crayons within seconds of picking them up, pressing them to paper too hard. The rheumatory stiffness prevented him from making the sounds to form words. Frustration was ceaseless in elementary school; his teachers didn't understand that his mouth couldn't do what his brain asked it to do. He would act out; they thought it was a behavioral issue. His punishment was to walk laps at recess. He soon started to run instead. He was 8 years old when he ran a 3K for the first time.

"[Fetal alcohol syndrome] can be similar to autism," Craig says. "Not everyone has the same behaviors or challenges. Universally, [there's] difficulty with cause and effect. They have a really hard time learning from their mistakes. That part of the brain that makes that critical thinking possible is impaired."

Andrew bolts up the stairs, weaving in and out of traffic, keeping his head down. He tends to be shy in groups, but above all, when he runs, he focuses solely on the ground beneath his feet. The boy whose siblings once affectionately compared him to the Tin Man blazes through the Indianapolis streets, fleet and fluid, besting the sunrise.

Movement was a hard-won prize, so why stop?

"We've always tried to find places for him to participate, to be included and truly accepted -- where he's not just the token outsider," Craig says.

One of those places is the Special Olympics. He joined the Indiana Washington Township program in 2011, and three years later, at the USA Games -- a competition every four years for athletes with intellectual disabilities -- he won gold in the 1,500-, 3,000- and 5,000-meter races. He'll defend those at this year's Games (July 1-6) in Seattle, where he could earn a spot in the 2019 World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi.

Despite his success in those disciplines, Andrew doesn't typically train for middle-distance runs: He targets half and full marathons. And not just any marathons. Last November, Andrew qualified for the 2019 Boston Marathon, becoming part of an elite group of Special Olympics runners to qualify on time alone, when he finished the 2017 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon in 2 hours, 57 minutes and 33 seconds.

Andrew could've run the 2018 Boston Marathon. He was asked to, in fact. In April 2017, Andrew finished the Carmel Marathon in 3:05:44, 44 seconds over the qualifying time for Boston for his age group. When the CEO of Special Olympics Massachusetts heard how close Andrew was, he offered him a nonqualifying spot.

Andrew politely declined. He wanted to qualify on his own.

"His hard work paid off," Craig says. "He's earned that honor."

The music dies down on East Michigan Street, and the runners convene for a photo. As cameras and phones shutter and click, an announcement is made: Today is Andrew Peterson Day, declared by the city's mayor. Michael Sullivan, special assistant to the mayor, presents Andrew with an official decree, and everyone lines up to take selfies with the man of the hour.

Andrew politely obliges each and every one, beaming -- though he's still quiet and reserved. His genial handshake offers are refused in lieu of hugs, which he welcomes freely. From the stairs, one of the leaders calls out, "Have a Happy Andrew Peterson Day!"

OUTSIDE THE IRSAY FAMILY YMCA, an Indianapolis Colts flag whips in the wind, just inches beneath the American flag. When the YMCA of Greater Indianapolis learned about Andrew's qualification for the Boston Marathon, it gave him a membership -- so a workout on this facility's indoor track has become part of the routine.

And routine, to Andrew, is everything. "Andrew needs to see the sequence," Craig says. "When we stick to the routine, he's real good. If you throw a wrench in there? He'll quickly not know what to do."

That concept applies to race day, too. Andrew needs to know the turns and bends on a course before he runs or he could get lost. To avoid that, he and his dad often arrive early and preview the route. At home, their routine keeps them busy for more than 12 hours a day, with meal prep, running, gym workouts and appearances.

"He runs anywhere from 75 to 100 miles a week," Craig says, watching his son run around the track at what looks like video game speed. "Before 361 Degrees came along," the company which, upon hearing Andrew's story, offered to sponsor him, "he used to go through pairs of shoes in six weeks."

It's a fine balance for Craig as he juggles the roles of coach, father and caretaker.

In the late 1990s, Craig was nearing 40 years old and had amassed a nest egg in higher education, telecommunication sales and nonprofit fundraising. He felt it was time to give back. "Money and security were good things, but I felt there had to be more to life," he says. After taking up volunteering with at-risk children in Indianapolis, he was inspired to adopt.

Craig learned about a group of siblings, four African-American children -- three boys, including Andrew, and a girl, at the time living in separate foster homes -- who had all been exposed to alcohol while their mother was pregnant. He was white, gay and single -- and he knew there would be obstacles because of it. The first was when he tried to adopt the girl. Her foster family objected to the adoption because of Craig's sexuality, calling his household "immoral." But the boys came, and in 1998, Craig became the first openly gay man in Indiana to adopt children through foster care.

Later that year, the girl had been officially adopted by the foster family; but within six months, she told her adoptive mother and local police that her adoptive father had been abusing her. In early 2001, with the adoptive father already serving a 40-year sentence, Craig jumped at the chance to reunite the family.

Not long after, Craig adopted another pair of siblings, brothers, who had been moved around more than two dozen times in less than three years and had a variety of problems, including PTSD stemming from early abuse.

"We never used the terms 'biological' or 'adoptive,'" Craig says. "All just brothers and sisters here. Those words create a real sense of confusion in who's accepted and who isn't. We've never used that language in our house."

Craig's daughter, Ashley, who lives in Atlanta and works as an inspirational speaker and PTSD and trauma advocate, can't imagine taking on the task her father did. "Dad did the impossible. Adopting six kids. I mean, are you crazy?" says the 28-year-old. "And all of these children have problems? But that's never discouraged him from being our father and staying our father."

Furthermore, she believes Andrew found running because of Craig: "Andrew says [actor] Denzel [Washington] is his role model, but I think he's confused," she says with a laugh. "The way Andrew puts on glasses and crosses his legs, even the running -- our father was a runner. I think his role model is our father."

Craig doesn't get into any of this. He doesn't speak of Indiana state Reps. Woody Burton and Jack Lutz, who sponsored an ill-fated bill to bar homosexuals from adopting upon hearing about Craig. He doesn't rehash a local pastor's sending letters to Madison County churches, urging them to rally against Ashley's adoption.

Craig is silent on that chapter. Six children -- all between the ages of 23 and 28 -- five boys and a girl, just like his upbringing back home in Billings, Montana. Now only two live with Craig in Indianapolis: Andrew and 24-year-old Michael. The others have started their own chapters, some close by, some -- in Ashley's case -- across the country.

"How that man put up with what we put him through as children is beyond me," says Travis Peterson, 25, now living in Evansville, three hours away. "What made him want to do that? I've never figured that out."

Andrew turns the corner of the track. Craig, with his arms crossed, leans toward his son as he hits a straightaway: "Five more?" Andrew nods, and they high-five as he passes.

Craig briefly recalls a principal who once said that Andrew would grow up to be just another angry black man. "People, more often in the sports arena, from time to time didn't quite understand Andrew," Craig says. "I tried to figure out ways to have Andrew avoid those people.

"I tried to build upon Andrew's strengths to give him potential success, so he's not hearing all day long what he does wrong. Soon he was seeing for himself what he could do right."

But Craig doesn't feel the need to mention that he and Andrew were guests at President Barack Obama's final state dinner, honoring the prime minister of Italy. He also doesn't note that, at the dinner, Andrew represented the Special Olympics nationally, not just the Indiana chapter, or that --after the 44th president spoke to Andrew -- he looked at Craig and said, "Good job, Dad."

No, he leaves that unsaid. Like his son, Craig is focused on the ground beneath his feet.

THE FATHER AND SON stop at Craig's sister's house to pick up a sparkling silver vest she made for Andrew to wear at the 500 Festival, a monthlong celebration leading up to the Indianapolis 500. Andrew was named the festival's first-ever Elite Running Ambassador.

Upon seeing himself in the mirror, Andrew talks for what seems like the first time that day. "Oh, I am fancy," he says, looking himself up and down. The words are slow and punctuated, like staccato riffs. True to his relationship with routine, Andrew needs to warm up around unfamiliar people.

In addition to competing, Andrew is a public speaker and advocate on behalf of the Special Olympics -- and that's what he'll be doing at the festival. "It will be a great opportunity for Andrew," says his aunt. "He'll do what he does well: talk about his experience."

Back at the Peterson home, Craig pulls out a map of Indiana littered with colored tacks, pinpointing every high school at which Andrew has spoken. Andrew has his 15-minute speech down cold, two lines of which stand out: "I don't ever want your pity. Rather, I need your respect."

Craig adds another tack to the collection: Andrew has hit 100.

After an early dinner, where Andrew gushes about his favorite superheroes ("Oh, I wish I could fly. I'm fast, but I'm no Flash"), Craig and Andrew head to the Indiana School for the Blind to mentor middle school- and high school-aged children with physical and intellectual disabilities. They do this twice a week for six months of the year, guiding the students through simulated track-and-field events.

Andrew switches gears easily, wielding supreme patience with the children -- some of whom he has developed friendships with. He high-fives a boy for wearing an Avengers T-shirt. He cracks up when another repeatedly removes his glasses and poses for a photographer. He alters his teaching technique for each runner; with some he instructs verbally, with others he demonstrates more physically.

Andrew runs quick 10-yard jogs, emphasizing the importance of arm motion. "You want to have your elbows bent and your fingers together, moving up and back while you run," he says. "Like picking berries and putting them in a basket."

When Andrew starts to see progress in a young boy's form and speed, he smiles, giving a thumbs-up and a clap. "Good job! Practice makes perfect," he says, nearly singing.

Craig is running a javelin station on the other side of the track. A little later on, he sees students starting to drift away from Andrew, so he walks over.

Andrew doesn't notice the group dispersing at first -- not because he's being inattentive, but because he is focused on the boy who improved, teaching him another technique. Andrew has said he wants to have a son one day so he can teach him how run; this is evident in the care he puts into every word and movement of teaching a boy he barely knows.

Craig is upset that Andrew isn't being more assertive with his group, for not keeping them all together. Andrew takes the reprimand well: eye contact, verbal and physical acknowledgements. He bounces back quickly, rounding up his troops.

When Craig walks away, Andrew laughs and smiles. "It's not like I don't know what I'm doing," he says, a little louder than just to himself. He returns to teaching the boy.

Almost immediately, a child in Andrew's group stops running and sits on the track. Andrew walks over, the sun prismatic in his glasses, and bends down grinning.

"Why are you sitting still?" he asks.

AS THE DAYLIGHT fades over downtown Indianapolis -- the end of a 16-hour day -- Craig and Andrew go to Crown Hill Cemetery for a final run. It's the fourth-largest cemetery in the United States and the highest point in Indianapolis.

It's also Andrew's favorite spot to run. "You can see everything," he says. And you can.

Over the past few years, millions of dollars have been poured into the revitalization of Indianapolis. New businesses have opened, shopping plazas are thriving, high-end apartment complexes have sprung up seemingly overnight.

At birth, Andrew was immobile, and he couldn't speak until well into middle school. Now he routinely speaks in front of hundreds of people. The boy once called Tin Man sprints past mausoleums bearing renowned Indiana names like Harrison and Gatling, Fortune and Irsay. It's only right that a young man so gung ho on writing his story should elevate a city rewriting its own.

I don't ever want your pity. Rather, I need your respect.

The sun ebbs beyond the horizon on Andrew Peterson Day, the moon prominent across the sky. Craig slings an arm around his son's shoulder for a photo.

"You tired yet?" the father asks.

Andrew laughs, drips of sweat cascading down his glasses, though his shirt is dry as a bone.

He shakes his head.