“Julia is very kind, giving and thoughtful. She’s been a big blessing for us,” said Rebecca Charles.
After meeting Julia Charles, and seeing that big smile on her face, it’s hard to imagine the pain she feels on a daily basis.
“She’s got Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, which is a weakening of the muscles in her lower legs and her feet arches had moved to the top of her feet. She’s had seven surgeries for her feet and she still has a tumor in her right foot that can’t come out,” said Rebecca.
“She had a lot of struggles early on. Before we found racing in 2014, she was very closed off and very withdrawn. She lacked communication skills. Then when we got her hooked up with ‘My Team Triumph’, it was just a complete turn around in her and her personality. She felt accepted in the community with the runners,” said Rebecca.
Something most of us may take for granted, a nighttime run, actually changed Julia’s life.
“She hadn’t been around a lot of people, and it was at night, a glow-run race. She doesn’t do well at night. I was scared to let her go off with with somebody that I didn’t know, but a friend of mine said she’d be okay,” said Rebecca. “At the finish line when I saw her she had the biggest smile on her face. It was incredible.”
Racing unlocked something in Julia.
“I like the races because the people are so nice and they cheer me on,” said Julia. “It makes me feel happy and free.”
“She started participating in these races, and the more she participated, being in the wind really freed her up,” said Rebecca. “She started communicating more and coming out of her shell. She started socializing more with other people. It changed her.”
Racing helped give Julia a voice and a sense of community.
She used to be uncomfortable around strangers and in large crowds, now she’s a cheerleader along the route.
“They put so much effort in. When they look like they’re about to give up I just say – good luck, have a good time and anything is possible,” said Julia.
“People are accepting her for who she is now instead of labeling her as autistic and thinking she can’t do anything,” said Rebecca. “We found her niche and what she needs to do and where she fits in.”
The racing community has welcomed Julia with open arms, and made sure her 16th birthday was one she’ll never forget.
“She wrote a little note and asked athletes to send her medals from all 50 states,” said Rebecca. “She got all 50 states, plus some international medals from Japan”
Medals from all over the world came flooding in, but a few immediately stood out.
“I like the Disney Star Wars ones because they remind me of the movies,” said Julia.
What started as a simple note turned into an outpouring of love.
“She didn’t really feel like anybody cared about her, because it’s hard to get kids to come to a special needs birthday party, and I wanted this birthday to be special for her. When these medals started coming in she was feeling so much love,” said Rebecca.
Julia’s new lease on life makes her feel like she can overcome any obstacle, and she was ready to put that to the test.
“You’re out there and really you’re competing against yourself. You’re running with your brothers and sisters,” said Leo ‘Doc Bee’ Bryant.
“We all say it but something magical happens out there. You go in nervous for your first race not sure you can accomplish these obstacles, and you turn into a beast out there,” said Spartan racer Jennifer Wolfe.
“You’re just in a different reality, where it’s free. You’re pushing yourself, your mind, body and spirit,” said Bryant.
The day had come for Julia to become a Spartan. But she couldn’t do it alone, as racers from all over the country came to Saraland to be a part of Julia’s journey.
“They text me in December and said they’d be running their first race in Alabama. They asked me to be a part of the team and I couldn’t say no,” said Bryant.
Julia is used to participating in races, but the Spartan Race isn’t your typical run in the park.
Runners must overcome obstacles designed to push their physical and mental strength to their limits.
“When we come to some of her phobias, like the water and dirt, we’ll be mindful and prep her as we approach,” said Bryant.
“We’re going to make some human pyramids, we’ll be on all fours as she climbs over us. There’s a main team of 6-8 people that will will push, pull and carry the wheelchair but we also have a huge, massive group that will be right there,” said Wolfe.
The course is designed to push even the most elite athletes to their breaking point, but Julia’s team made sure she had everything she needed to complete the race.
“Autism is a disorder where an individual thinks they’re talking and communicating but they’re not,” said Bryant. “Because of that Julia and I have certain code words we’ll use, certain therapeutic methods I’ll use along the course just to do some checks and assessments to make sure she’s enjoying the experience. And at the same time, make sure everybody else can understand what she’s experiencing. So I’ll be translating back and forth.”
With the help of her team, Julia defied the odds. She overcame her fears and she took on each obstacle.
Two hours, 39 minutes and 21 seconds after she started, she crossed the finish line.
“It was hard, but you can do it, it’s all in the muscles,” said Julia with a smile.
After two hours on the course, Julia became a spartan.
“I think it gave her more confidence to know that she can do other things, that she’s not limited and that there are people out there to support her,” said Julia’s mom Rebecca. “She knows she can accomplish things in life and nothing is impossible.”
Julia wanted to do the Spartan Race to show you can do anything you put your mind to. Her message is simple and one that can resonate with everyone.
“Keep in mind everybody you’re around, they may be with something in silence, so just be nice,” said Bryant.