YORKTOWN, VA (WTKR)- It's a windy Tuesday afternoon at York High School. The track and field team is out at Bailey Field for a practice and among the distance running group is Mason Simmons.
"I'd like to be maybe a famous athlete one day," the junior runner said. "I'd like to improve on my running speed."
Simmons wrapped up his first cross country season with the Falcons earlier this month and is starting his first experience with track and field. The young runner is a bit unfamiliar with organized sports and hasn't taken part in many team activities. Mason is autistic.
"His special ed teach reached out to Coach Tate and I and asked if we were willing to work with a kid on the autism spectrum," recalled Elisa Schasse, a cross country and track coach at York.
"We obviously worried about the possibility of bullying, we worried about transportation," noted Mason's mother, Lana. "We were also concerned about if the coaches had time, because he does take a little extra time, to work with him and not take away from the team."
Once Mason was off and running, some of the Simmons' concerns were put to rest. Their son was in good hands, including those of Schasse.
"I'm also the mother of a 16-year old high-functioning on the spectrum," the coach pointed out. "For me, it was really a joy to be able to help another family."
"They immediately folded Mason in," Lana said of the coaches. "They made him feel included, they communicate great with myself and his teacher."
Now Mason is part of a team, knocking out laps, racking up miles and chasing down goals. He's doing runs of up to 12 miles and working on getting stronger and faster.
"I think there's definitely stress relief for him because he has to move his body," his mother said. "I think the other thing is he gets a sense of camaraderie."
"I'm very impressed with how I've managed to gain all that running speed all on my own," Mason added. "It kind of surprises me because I did better than I thought."
"What I loved about him is that his attitude was always great," Schasse noted. "He always showed up, he was consistent, he would work hard and everyone grew to love him."
It wasn't just the coaching staff. His parents noticed that his peers were also part of his support system, opening their arms to help the newest Falcon runner spread his wings.
"The most gratifying part was how much people around here support him," said Mason's father, Maurice.
Simmons isn't just developing skills that help him on the track. The work ethic and discipline he's learning in sports is also carrying over to other parts of his life, such as school and work. Mason also holds a part time job at a cafe where he works on weekends.
"I do think it establishes a little bit of grit," his mother noted. "You can do hard things and that bleeds into other aspects of his life."
Many can learn from Mason's story and perseverance. His parents hope that other special needs children will be willing to try sports.
"Mason's out here, he's on the spectrum," said Lana. "He took a chance and it ended up being really good."
"To be able to see students succeed, to be able to see their confidence built, to be able to see a team, a family grow together, there's not much better reason to do what we do."