NORTHAMPTON — Beating someone in a race is one of the best feelings Troy Cronin has ever had.
The Northampton High senior sprinter, who is a double amputee, ran the 100-meter dash in 14.8 seconds for a personal record in a home meet against Longmeadow on Monday. And while he didn’t win, he also didn’t come in last in a race against able-bodied runners.
“That felt awesome. I haven’t beaten people in a while,” said Cronin, who competes on specially made running blades. “It’s fun racing people every meet. Even though sometimes I don’t beat people, I’m improving and I can see that. Now I’m actually starting to beat people and I’m having a lot of fun.”
In just the last year, Cronin has dropped his 100 personal record by over 5 seconds after Monday’s result. The same day, he also high jumped a career-best 4 feet even, up 3 inches from his previous best.
Cronin, 18, lost his lower legs and seven fingers to bacterial meningitis and sepsis at 2 years old. It was a touch-and-go fight that he won.
“They kept him in a coma for nine days,”said Hillary Cronin, his mother. “Every day was a battle of whether he was going to live or not. He turned the corner and made it through, but they had to amputate the extremities of his legs and hands because the heparin, the medicine that made the water go away from his organs to save his life, pushed (the water) to the extremities.”
While the five-year plan of many high school seniors includes graduating from college, Cronin’s also includes the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Selection for the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field team won’t happen until early 2020. While he works toward that dream, he plans to study mechanical engineering at a local community college and ideally transfer to UMass later.
“It’s a huge goal, but I think if I work hard for five years, that’s a lot of time,” he said. “I have a lot of work to do (on the track). My time is going to have to drop a lot. I’ve noticed each year that I make significant differences. … If I keep working for five years, I don’t think that’s an unreasonable goal.”
Cronin looks up to U.S. Paralympian Jerome Singleton, who is a single amputee sprinter and embodies a similar work ethic.
“What I like about him is he is very modest,” Cronin said. “He puts in a lot of work. He stays a balanced athlete and he focuses a lot on his school work while still working hard and helping others achieve their goals as well.”
Cronin started wearing his first pair of prosthetic legs at age 3, but this is his first full season competing on the blades.
Previously, Cronin had played sports, including track, on his regular prosthetics with varied results. Because his walking legs were not made for running, the fit wasn’t perfect and they created blisters and abrasions.
“It would set him back like three days because he’d have to let them heal,” Hillary Cronin said. “Now he doesn’t have these abrasions from the sweat and the wear and tear. He can challenge himself. He can feel successful.”
Instead of letting the pain detour him away from the sport, he looked for a way to adapt, like he’s done his whole life.
“He doesn’t get defeated easily,” Hillary Cronin said. “He had to learn to adapt to so many things. He has three fingers, really, essentially, so the things he’s learned to do with three fingers — he would play baseball, no adaptations. You didn’t really think about it. He just did it. It’s really inspiring.”
The Cronin’s insurance company rejected their claim for the running prosthetics which cost roughly $30,000 each. Hillary Cronin said that is a common problem for amputees because running blades aren’t seen as a necessity for everyday life.
Troy Cronin received his blades through Amputee Blade Runners, a nonprofit based in Nashville, Tennessee, that is seeking to help an amputee from each state acquire running prostheses. He was accepted for a grant during the 2013-14 indoor track season and also became theMassachusetts ambassador for the program. Cronin’s duties include fundraising and special appearances, but what he has liked most is spreading awareness.
“Being an ambassador allows me to reach out to people,” he said. “Anyone can run track, as long as they put in the work. That’s my favorite part of it. … People with prosthetic legs think they can’t do things like run and stuff. It is harder and there is pain, but with the right support and if you put in enough energy, anything is possible.”
As much as he wants to be a role model for fellow amputees, Cronin’s Blue Devil track team members and coaches see him as an inspiration.
“He’s definitely one of the most focused athletes I’ve met,” said senior Charlie Baranowski, a teammate and friend since elementary school. “He just wants to be better so much. That’s what he wants. It’s just really inspiring, because he’s the one that has the most disadvantages and he’s out there working his hardest every day. It really helps the team think like, ‘Well, if Troy is out there doing his stuff and it’s 90 degrees and humid out, then we can do it too.’”
Not only has the team been supportive of him, but so has the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athlete Association and the Massachusetts State Track Coaches Association, as Cronin is competing at the state level for the first time this season.
In dual meets, such as Monday’s at the high school, he runs in the slower heat of the 100. But last Saturday, at the MSTCA Invitational in New Bedford, race director Jim Kelley gave Northampton boys coach Angus Fisher the option of Cronin running the regular 100 or in his own mobility-impaired division. Cronin chose to run by himself in the mobility-impaired race.
Kelley said this was the second year the option was offered, not just to Cronin but to anyone else with a disability. However, it was the first time a racer chose that option.
“Everybody got into it,” Kelley said. “They were happy to see him run, the whole place was clapping.”
“He loves the stage,” Fisher added. “I’ve never been more emotional in my life. The kid was so pumped. I told the guys, ‘Crowd up at the finish line, give this kid the stage, he needs it, he deserves it.’ Then when I heard every single person cheering for him as loud as they could, it was crazy. … I loved it — to see him beaming all day. He was like a celebrity. It was awesome.”
Cronin saw Saturday’s solo race, in which he ran a 16.05, as a chance to show what amputee high school runners an accomplish, but he still remains hungry for competition.
“Running on my own was cool because I got to set an example,” he said. “In the future, I look forward to having other runners in the mobility-impaired (division), that would make that better. … Right now I would say, being in the heats with other friends is better.”
Learned in Nashville
Cronin and his dad Mark, brother Zack and sister Carleigh traveled to Nashville in February 2014 to have his blades made and fitted, and there he also was taught how to use them. A work conflict prevented Hillary Cronin from making the trip.
Back at home, Troy Cronin had worked with Shriners Hospitals for Children in Springfield with his previous prosthetics, and he can go there to make adjustments and fixes to his blades as needed.
Fisher has seen a dramatic improvement in Cronin on the track since he started working with the blades a year ago.
“The kid is making history and he doesn’t even know it,” Fisher said. “He’s come into his own running with them. … He’s gotten much more mature and he’s realized he can run really fast.”
In order to get faster, Fisher and Northampton girls track coach Brandon Palmer, who specializes in sprints, have been working with Cronin on his form. Cronin said while he knows there is still a lot of room for improvement, he sees the adjustments from practice working in meets.
“Normally on my start, I’m a little wobbly and I have a little delayed start because I’m just off,” said Cronin, who doesn’t use starting blocks Monday, “I really focused on … staying still and putting all my pressure on my forward leg so I can push off for the start.”
Fisher said they are also working on how he drives his legs while running.
“His hip flexors are (limited) so he can only drive his knees a quarter of the way,” Fisher said. “We’re really working on trying to get (his knees) up by doing ladder and agility drills. Don’t get me wrong, he’s coming along, but it’s not 100 percent there yet.”
As the high school postseason approaches, Cronin said he would like to see his 100 time drop to 14.5, while running the 200 in 32 seconds and pushing his 400 time down to 72 seconds from Monday’s 74.5.
The mobility-impaired division also will be offered at the MIAA postseason meets. Cronin has not yet decided whether to take that option or to run with competition. For now, being on track is what it is all about.
“While I’m running, I’m not looked at as different, I’m just another athlete,” he said. “That’s what I love the most about it.”
Sarah Moomaw can be reached at email@example.com.