Juanita Webster-Freeman has been quoted as saying, “I’m not normal. I am actually different and it’s OK.”
OK, if it means being her.
OK, if it means being a star.
OK, if it means helping others like her.
The former Redlands High standout finished eighth in the heptathlon at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials last weekend in Eugene, Ore.
She had 5,887 points, excelling in the high jump, 800 meters and javelin throw.
The finish did not qualify her for the Olympics but was impressive for someone relatively new to the event.
The heptathlon is known as one of the most difficult and time-consuming events to learn. But it pales in comparison to Webster-Freeman’s main challenge, which is living with Asperger’s syndrome. Asperger’s is part of a broader diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Social interactions and nonverbal cues can be difficult for those afflicted.
“I’ve known I’ve had Asperger’s since I was 4,” Webster-Freeman, 24, said by phone. “I don’t look at it as a threat. I see it as a chance to learn and grow. I love what I have and would not choose to be regular.”
Regular, she is not. Webster-Freeman is a 5-foot-8, 129-pound stick of dynamite who goes by the Instagram handle “hep_beast.”
She fancied cheerleading and color guard when she was young. The movie “Bring It On” was an inspiration. Later she segued into track and field with the Rising Stars Track Club of Rialto.
“She didn’t like to run the 400 hurdles,” Webster-Freeman’s mother, Jevita, said. “But she’d say, ‘Get me a hamburger at In-N-Out and I’ll win the race.’”
Redlands High track and field coach April Berry discovered Webster-Freeman during a physical education class freshman year.
“She loves to run,” Berry said. “We’d separate the boys and girls and have them each run a mile. She’d run with both and was beating everyone.”
The phenom led Redlands to two consecutive section titles while setting five school records.
A snafu with her special education classes at Redlands whisked away a scholarship to Arizona State. She wound up instead at Cerritos College where she continued to shine.
At Cerritos, Webster-Freeman led the team to back-to-back California Community College championships. She scored 48 of her team’s 149.5 points as a sophomore, won four state individual titles and captured the heptathlon, scoring a CCCAA championship meet record 5,424 points.
Now she is a pro and lives in Goleta, near Santa Barbara. She runs for the Santa Barbara Track Club under coach Josh Priester and works for PathPointpoint, helping others with developmental disabilities.
She knows obstacles as well as Bo Jackson knew, well, everything.
“I have lots of challenges,” Webster-Freeman said. “Like reading and writing. I didn’t learn how to read until I was out of college and am just getting comfortable reading books.”
Berry says Webster-Freeman’s “super power” is her ability to mimic physical movement. Coaches have her study video and are careful not to pile on the verbal instruction.
Individuals on the autism spectrum are often ritualistic. That is true for Webster-Freeman who also has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. These challenges can make moving from event to event amid the sound and fury of a major meet difficult.
The challenge does not faze Webster-Freeman. She embraces it.
The challenge of Asperger’s.
The goal to someday make the Olympics.
The quest to help others.
“I want to be an inspiration to people on the autism spectrum world-wide,” she said. “Look at me now, I’m helping adults and kids in other communities. I’m working and living the dream.”
John Murphy may be reached at email@example.com