Patrick Ahearn came down the home stretch, and spectators and athletes alike rose to their feet, their cheers carrying him to the finish line.
The Norman High runner lost part of his left leg in a jet ski accident last August. Friday at Putnam City, he returned to competition for the first time since the accident.
Everyone at the meet welcomed him back.
“Everyone supporting me was really awesome,” Ahearn said. “I thought that was really cool.”
It was a lump-in-your-throat moment.
Ahearn has said since the accident he wanted to return to running, but as recently as a month ago, he didn't have a running leg. Without one, competing this track season seemed out of the question.
An appointment a few weeks ago at Scott Sabolich Prosthetics changed his timetable.
Ahearn had been jogging a bit on his walking leg, and his prosthetist, Kyle Wagner, had said that if that was going well, Ahearn might be fitted for a running leg during the checkup. Once Ahearn was fitted, it would take several weeks for the prosthetic to be ready.
Track season would be over by then.
But when Ahearn arrived at his appointment, Wagner had a surprise. He had contacted Freedom Innovations, the company that made the foot on Ahearn's walking leg.
“We've got this kid that wants to keep running in his life,” Wagner had told the company. “He was a cross country runner for his high school, and we think he might be fairly good down the road.”
Freedom Innovations liked the idea of letting Ahearn wear one of their legs and test it in competition, so it put a rush order on a running blade for Ahearn.
What's more, it provided the leg free of charge.
“It was a total surprise,” Ahearn said. “I went home with it that day.”
The next day, he showed up with it at track practice.
It wasn't his first time at practice. As a captain of the cross country team, he continued going to practice after his accident. He encouraged teammates. He helped where he could. But when they ran, he watched.
That changed these past few weeks.
“I honestly had no idea what to expect from the running leg when I put it on,” Ahearn said. “I was a little bit wobbly at first, but I quickly got the hang of it.”
Running on his walking leg had been clunky and awkward.
On the running leg?
“It felt just much smoother and easier,” he said.
It felt great in so many ways.
“At this point now, there's not a whole lot I can't do,” Ahearn said. “I just have to do a lot of it a little bit differently.”
Running was one of the last activities that Ahearn wanted to do but hadn't been able to do since his accident. These last couple weeks, he has been working to build endurance. After several months away, that has been tough, but earlier this week, he ran the 400 meters in 1 minute, 57 seconds.
“I finally got a decent time,” he said.
Ahearn went to coach Scott Monnard.
“Are you guys looking for anything that I need to be hitting in order to run a meet?” he asked the coach.
Monnard said, “It's completely up to you. Whenever you feel ready.”
Ahearn was ready.
Friday, he showed it. He ran with a bit of a hitch in his gait, he didn't push himself too hard, but he shattered his best time since his return, finishing in 1 minute, 32 seconds.
“It was total adrenaline pretty much,” Ahearn said. “I didn't want to trip or anything like that, but adrenaline had me going there.
“The thrill from it was more than I was expecting. I was really excited to get out there.”
And it seemed the entire track and field community was excited for him. Teammates cheered him at the start, several running along the infield beside him and yelling encouragement.
Then, the public address announcer let everyone in the stadium know that Ahearn was on the track, running for the first time since his accident. Fans in the stands crowded toward the front railing while every athlete, it seemed, congregated along the infield.
They were three or more deep as Ahearn came down the home stretch and crossed the finish line.
It was more than stirring.
It was fitting.
“That's what helped me get through all this ... ” Ahearn said, “the support from everyone around me.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.