AUGUSTA — As R.J. Sullivan made his way around the track at Alumni Field for a cool-down lap, well away from the action of the adjacent 100-meter races, Gardiner Area High School assistant track and field coach Joe Fitzsimmons posed a question.

“R.J., did you put on sunscreen? You look like you’re burning,” Fitzsimmons said.

A junior at Gardiner, Sullivan said he had put some on earlier while also conceding that he likely was getting a bit of a sunburn.

“People are going to think you’re rooting for Cony,” Fitzsimmons added, drawing vehement disagreement from Sullivan.

“You got something against Cony?” playfully piped in the voice to Sullivan’s immediate right, Matt MacGregor, a junior at Cony who was draped in the Rams’ signature red jersey.

Whether it is football, basketball or a 100-meter dash in a wheelchair, the rivalry between Cony and Gardiner will seemingly always be there as long as there is competition involved.

Friday afternoon at the annual Capital City Classic — which this year featured a tribute to former Cony track coach Taylor Harmon, who passed away last October — the 100-meter wheelchair race between Sullivan and MacGregor drew some of the loudest cheers of the evening.

“When you watch those two compete, it makes you realize how strong the human spirit can be because those kids are so amazing and positive,” Cony co-coach Shawn Totman said. “To watch them work so hard and for their teammates to cheer them on it’s really what track is all about.”

This was the second time this season the two had raced against one another, but the first in the competition wheelchairs Fitzsimmons and Sullivan procured on loan from Northeast Passage at a clinic this past Saturday at the University of New Hampshire.

Both Sullivan and MacGregor agreed it took a little getting used to, as the competition chairs require one to lean further forward and use special padded gloves to punch the hand rim rather than grip them in the traditional manner. For Sullivan, who was the lone competitor in the wheelchair division last spring, having someone to compete against was as thrilling as testing out the new equipment.

“I was grateful,” said Sullivan, who clocked a time of 36.82 seconds to hold of MacGregor by 2.52 and repay him for a defeat earlier this season in Bath. “I was very pleased that someone else came out and just enjoyed it.”

MacGregor, who is also a junior and noted that he and Sullivan have become friends over the past few weeks, got turned onto the idea of track by Totman last November. He had hoped to play unified basketball with his brother, Ethan, a sophomore, this past winter, but could not as athletes are not permitted to play in wheelchairs.

Still, MacGregor is hardly new to sports despite suffering from Spina Bifida — a birth defect where an infant’s spinal cord fails to develop properly in the womb. Before he started to lose the ability to walk with the aid of knee, ankle and foot orthotics and a posterior rollator five years ago, MacGregor played soccer and basketball. He still plays baseball in the challenger division and has recently gotten into sled hockey at the Bank of Maine Ice Vault in Hallowell.

“He always had physical therapy when he was younger, you know, several times a week to keep active that way,” Matthew’s mother, Alexandra Richards, said. “Then when he was in elementary school things would come home for things like scouts and youth soccer. He’d just bring them and you ask, ‘you want to do this?’ You bring him and you assume he can do it until you find out otherwise.”

On Thursday, MacGregor did just about every event he could. In addition to competing in the 100, MacGregor also competed in the 400, shot put and discus — enjoying every minute of it.

“Very much so,” Matthew said. “I’m definitely going to continue with it next year.”

Evan Crawley — 621-5640

[email protected]


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