The Guilford County Championships had a really touching moment after the conclusion of the 200m dash.
If you've followed track and field in North Carolina the last four year you're familiar with wheelchair athlete Christopher Coke of Ragsdale. Coke has competed in the 100m, 200m, 400m, shot put and discus.
Each year at the end of their final county meet, the outgoing senior class is honored. Due to predicted storms tomorrow the meet changed from a two-day affair to a single-day of competition. This sudden schedule change left the meet unprepared to honor their seniors per usual.
But they managed to still pull off something special.
During the girls and boys 200m dash heats they called all seniors who competed down to the infield. After a brief recognition, they asked the senior class to line the track from the 200m start to the finish line to help cheer Coke, who was waiting at the start line, to the finish in his final Guilford County Championship event.
As the race was underway, athletes that Coke passed ran alongside him all the way to the finish line clapping and cheering for him. These athletes have watched Coke progress in his wheelchair events throughout their four years and you could tell the sendoff salute meant something to them as well.
The moment, however, meant the most to Coke, a T-54 and F-55 athlete. Though track is an individual sport, and he rarely sees competition outside of the state meet, it's certainly a team sport for him. Just like every other athlete, Coke practices hard every day to better his PRs and pursue state titles in all his events alongside his teammates.
Coke was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don't form properly. Corrective surgery after birth carried too great a risk of death -- "at the time there was about a 50% mortality rate, though that risk is much lower now," he said -- so Coke was left without use of his legs, and his parents loved him unconditionally.
Paralysis didn't stop Coke from pursuing athletics as he grew up. He played wheelchair basketball when he was younger amongst other activities. Going through school he'd still play sports with his friends and classmates during recess, just from his wheelchair.
"When you see someone in a wheelchair or someone with a disability you think of all the things that they can't do," Coke said. "But if you give them time to shine you'll be amazed."
When Coke was in middle school, his track coach approached him and told him that he should come out and join the team. He told him he'd have no one to compete against, but it could be something he enjoyed. Coke agreed and said he'd come out to tryouts not sure if he'd make the team not really sure what he'd be good at in the sport.
At the middle school level they offered two wheelchair events in shot put and the 800m. Both of these were new to Coke.
Coke competed in his first meet, and there was an instant connection with the sport even though he'd just gotten his foot in the door. He says, "When I finished, I looked at my parents and said, 'This is what I want to do. This is fun and I want to do this again next week.'"
Coke would finish out his middle school years doing track, and once he got to high school at Ragsdale his coaches were already familiar with him and convinced him to continue representing them.
He says, "[As a freshman] I felt like I kind of stuck out in the sport, but now I feel like I'm a part of a team." He didn't really understand what the sport could bring him or how he could contribute to his team as a wheelchair athlete. Heading into high school Coke was the only wheelchair athlete he knew of at the time, but that didn't deter him.
Over his four years, Coke would meet and compete against other wheelchair athletes including Miles Hill (Northern Durham) and Omar Sanchez (Broughton) as well as adaptive athlete and Paralympian Desmond Jackson (Hillside). This gave Coke some confirmation that there were others like him competing in the sport, which gave him extra drive and competition as both the older Hill and Sanchez were beating him at the time.
Coke spoke highly of his current NCHSAA 4A wheelchair friend and rival Ladale Gambrell of Broughton HS. Gambrell has beaten Coke the last two years at the state championship, but Coke loves seeing him succeed in the sport and loves having the competition.
Coke was the NCHSAA 4A Indoor wheelchair shot put and 55m wheelchair state champion indoors as well as the 2016 400m dash wheelchair state champion outdoors. As a freshman, he was the only one who competed in the 400m dash wheelchair at the state meet where he won his first state title.
"Even though I was by myself that was a great accomplishment for me," Coke said. "I was super thrilled, 'I'm a state champion. I have three state titles and that's something that can't be taken away from me."
The NCHSAA has standards in place that Coke and other wheelchair athletes have to hit to advance to the state meet, and it does award points to wheelchair athletes to contribute to their team score. Knowing that he is contributing points to the team battle means a ton to Coke.
Coke competes on the US Paralympic circuit after the high school season ends, racing track events as well as throwing the shot put, javelin and discus.
Coke says the implements they use during high school competition are heavier than what is used for the Paralympic events. Though it throws him off having two use different weights in shot put and discus throughout the season it's something he has adjusted well to.
Coke plans to attend Campbell University next year and is hoping he'll get a chance to continue working with the track team in college. Pursuing Paralympic track is certainly something he hopes will also be in the cards.
But on this day, Coke was celebrated for being a member of the Guilford County track and field community.
And judging by the support he received in that final 200m, he will be missed.