Sarasota man becomes first athlete with autism to compete in Gravel Worlds race
After weeks of training, and a lifetime of overcoming obstacles, family and friends watched with anticipation as 22-year-old Josh Eckert crossed the finish line.
LINCOLN, Neb. (KLKN) – After weeks of training, and a lifetime of overcoming obstacles, family and friends watched with anticipation as 22-year-old Josh Eckert crossed the finish line.
It was a profound moment for Josh, as he became the first athlete with autism to ever compete in and complete the Lincoln’s annual Gravel Worlds bike race.
“When I saw my son go out, I was really nervous,” Josh’s mother, Lissette said. “But coming back, you could tell he’s just got this confidence about him and he’s happy that he got to accomplish it and finish what he started six weeks ago. So I feel amazingly proud.”
The 50K race began at 8 a.m. on Saturday. Josh and his trainer, Chase Pettey, set a goal to complete the race in three hours or less. Shortly after 11, Josh rode down the hill towards the finish line, triumphantly raising his fist in the air as he crossed. Shortly after, he was embraced by his family and coaches.
“I just told him what a good job he did,” Josh’s father, Darrell said. “We’re just so proud of him. You know, he works hard and he puts a lot of effort and time into his goals. It just makes any parent proud.”
After embracing his supporters, Josh held two thumbs up in the air and posed for pictures.
Flanking Josh every step of the way was Pettey, who has known the Eckert family for seven years.
Over the past several years, Pettey has worked as an adventure trainer who trains high-end athletes, while also volunteering his time with young people with learning exceptionalities.
After some self-reflection during the pandemic, Pettey had a sudden realization: He wanted to transform his volunteer work into something even more impactful.
“I was happy, but I wanted to do more,” Pettey said. “And so this idea came about and I think it was in that moment that I realized this is now a passion project.”
“Josh is relentless, he just never gives up,” Pettey said. “It was a beautiful thing and just awesome to see him finish really strong. I’m really proud of him.”
Josh’s parents and his coach hope that Josh’s accomplishments can motivate and inspire others to be the best they can be, no matter the challenges they are faced with.
“His ability to [compete in the 5K] is really opening it up for all the other people with autism or Asperger’s or Down syndrome to say, ‘I could do this too,'” Lissette said.
“We want people to see Josh and other children like him, and know, ‘You know what? Our child can set a goal and achieve it,’ and that’s what we want,” Darrell said.
“A lot of people are going to be inspired by him,” Pettey said. “His friends are going to be really proud and we’re just happy he has this experience.”
On Saturday night, Josh was honored at an awards ceremony for being the first individual with exceptionalities to finish the Gravel Worlds race, and he’s not done yet. Josh’s family says that he plans to return to Gravel Roads next year, and wants to bring five to 10 more of his friends with him to compete.
“I think he started something revolutionary, and I can’t wait for him to do more,” Lissette said.