GARDINER — It is an idyllic spring day as R.J. Sullivan situates himself in the shot put circle at Hoch Field.

After gathering himself for a moment, he lifts the 12-pound orb with his left hand and presses it against his cheek. In a moment of calculated fury he launches the weighted ball forward, letting out a slight grunt in the process.

As he exits the circle, the same inevitable smile makes its way across his face.

A sophomore at Gardiner Area High School, Sullivan is also a manager with the school’s football and boys basketball programs in the fall and winter, but nothing compares to track and field season. When asked why, he does not hesitate to answer.

“Easy,” Sullivan said, “I can compete.”

R.J. Sullivan has multiple epiphyseal dysplasia, a hereditary disorder that effects the ends of long bones and causes severely weakened hips and knees. Despite his condition, those who know him are quick to point out his seemingly ever-present upbeat attitude.

“We’re really excited that he can be a participant for us. The team loves him. He’s got a great sense of humor and he’s just got a great attitude,” Gardiner track and field coach Hillary Wing said. “He’s always willing to do the workouts, and if he can’t do the workouts we adapt it for him.”

While the desire to compete was there, it took some effort on the part of Sullivan, his classmates and Jobs for Maine Graduates teacher and head football coach Matt Burgess to make it a reality.

The biggest obstacle was finding a chair for Sullivan to compete in, as the one already at the high school was better suited for hospital discharge rather than the 100 meters.

“He came to me and said, ‘I’m going to be able to do track. I can be a part of the track team and can compete,'” Burgess said. “I saw it as an opportunity for his classmates and for R.J. to advocate for himself.

“It was a learning experience for everybody. We opened a GoFundMe account to raise funds for a chair and pay for a rental chair that we got from Northeast Passage.”

Sullivan competes in a chair rented from Northeast Passage, the University of New Hampshire-based non-profit that has also worked with the Maine VA Medical Center and sled hockey program in Augusta in the past.

The plan is to raise enough money to buy a chair, which Sullivan plans to leave at the high school after graduation for future students to use. As of Saturday evening “RJ’s Tiger Tires” had received $890 in donations of its $2,500 goal.

Burgess also said he has been in contact with Orthopedic Physical Therapy and Josh Hunt — whose wife Michelle is one of Sullivan’s teachers at Gardiner — about helping with the cause, while Mathieu’s Cycle & Fitness recently donated a racing helmet.

Now that he has nearly all he needs to compete — assistant coach Joe Fitzsimmons is in the process of building him a stationary chair for the shot put — Sullivan is making the best of his equipment.

In Thursday’s meet at Gardiner against Lawrence, Lincoln, Monmouth, Mt. Blue, Spruce Mountain and Richmond, Sullivan drastically improved in two of his events and also competed in a new one for the first time this season.

In the shot put — with the assistance of Fitzsimmons anchoring the chair behind him — Sullivan threw 8 feet, 4 inches, which came exactly one week after his best throw went 6-11 in meet held in Bath. He shaved 4.24 seconds off his time in the 100 after finishing in 34.72 seconds, while he completed the 400 in 2 minutes, 47.18 seconds in his first attempt at it in a meet this season.

Sullivan said “it would mean a lot” to qualify for states this season, and he is not too far off in doing so. The qualifying standard in the shot put is 9-0, the 100 is 30 seconds and 400 is 2 minutes.

While the individual goals certainly hold meaning for Sullivan, it is not as important as being a part of a team. Burgess said Sullivan was as happy as any one of his players after a thrilling 28-25 win at Hampden Academy last football season, yet he still was not one of the players making tackles or catching touchdowns.

Now he is actually scoring points — the amount varies depending on the amount of other wheelchair competitors and if he meets the minimum standards — for his team, yet, according to teammate Brad Bailey, Sullivan’s greatest contributions to the Tigers cannot be measured in feet and seconds.

“He’s always trying to cheer us up when we’re doing something,” Bailey, a senior captain, said. “It’s good for us to have some kind of diversity on the team. It kind of makes us all come together a little more. He’s really cool to have on the team.

“… His spirit has got to be one of the best things on the team. He’s always so nice to everyone, he’s always got a smile on his face no matter what happens.”

Evan Crawley — 621-5640

[email protected]

Twitter: @Evan_Crawley

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