Written by: Andre Fernandez, Miami Herald
Being born with spina bifida deprived Homestead High senior Syrus Dawkins of the ability to run like his favorite sprinter, Usain Bolt. But Dawkins has never let his condition keep him from enjoying the thrill of racing on a track. Since childhood, Dawkins has competed in wheelchair track and field events in Special Olympics and at the high school level. So this spring when the opportunity presented itself for Dawkins to get back on the track, he didn’t hesitate.
“I love doing it because it shows people that people in wheelchairs have the ability to do things that some think they can’t do,” Dawkins said. “And I like showing I can do anything anybody else can do.”
Dawkins was one of four Miami-Dade County athletes who got the chance to compete in the 2021 Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) Track & Field State Championships in May — one year after COVID-19 canceled their season. Dawkins competed in wheelchair events in the 200 meters, 800 meters as well as the shot put and javelin at the state meet last month in Jacksonville.
Dawkins finished runner-up in shot put wheelchair and javelin and placed third in the 200-meter and 800-meter ambulatory races at state. Other local competitors at state included Miami Edison’s Vanessa Chery and Radley Jean-Jacques, a state runner-up in the 200 ambulatory as well as Miami Palmetto’s Sofia Elia, who won the girls’ 200- and 800-meter ambulatory.
“It was great to be able to finish my school year as a state runner-up and bring that back to the school,” Dawkins said. “I had been wanting to do that for a long time.”
Dawkins, 19, isn’t Homestead’s first successful adaptive track athlete. In fact, Dawkins raced in high school in the same chair that once belonged to one of his mentors, Isaac Lipscomb, who in 2018 became the first Miami-Dade County adaptive track and field athlete to compete at the state meet. Such events have been incorporated regularly at major meets locally and statewide as part of the FHSAA series during the past five years.
Lipscomb was a wide receiver/defensive back in football and ran track in high school before sustaining a spinal cord injury in a car accident in 2016, which claimed the lives of two of his friends and classmates and confined him to a wheelchair. Lipscomb then took up adaptive track events his senior season and competed at the state meet that year.
“[Dawkins] saw Isaac when he was a freshman and saw him putting on a show and that inspired him,” Homestead track coach Israel Alvarez said. “Isaac became like a big brother to him.”
Lipscomb was able to turn tragedy into triumph that year and has since gone on to compete in wheelchair basketball and track and field at the University of Texas-Arlington while pursuing a degree in communications. Dawkins, who also plans to pursue a degree in communications in college, is headed to Miami-Dade College just as Lipscomb did before he went to UT-Arlington.
“With the situation I was in, I felt like my story could give others confidence that they can do this and be good at it,” said Lipscomb, who is working on becoming a play-by-play broadcaster. “I used to look at football players going to college and I was like if they can do it, I can too. Seeing a familiar face succeed in something you are also doing, makes you go harder.”
Alvarez, who has had the chance to coach Lipscomb and Dawkins, said the latter became an inspiration to the rest of his team during a tough recovery period while dealing with the limitations of the pandemic. “We treat all our athletes the same way and try to inspire confidence in them,” Alvarez said. “With Syrus we learned even though he can’t walk, he can do almost all of the same things the rest of our athletes can do and he’s a hard worker.”
There were concerns at first with the pandemic about Dawkins competing, and he nearly didn’t get the chance due to him being past the age eligibility limit. Homestead filed an appeal, which was granted by the FHSAA allowing Dawkins to compete.
Competing in adaptive track became an outlet for Dawkins as a kid. Dawkins competed in special Olympics events, but wasn’t used to the competition wheelchairs specific to racing and throwing events. Dawkins said it took him a few months to get comfortable in terms of learning how to maneuver on the track but learned with the help of Alvarez and other teammates.
Dawkins began competing in adaptive events his freshman year, but didn’t compete for a full season until his sophomore year. This past season, Dawkins competed in adaptive events at GMAC, Spartan Invitational and Youth Fair meets as well as the quad meets with other local schools. “We were just super excited for him and super proud of him to get the chance to race again this year,” Homestead athletic director Curtis Brown said. “Syrus has a very upbeat vibe about him and he just wanted to do well. He could have easily given up, but he’s a real trooper.”
Dawkins received his high school diploma last week at Homestead’s graduation ceremony at Miami-Dade College’s Kendall campus. Dawkins will be heading to that school in the fall and hopes to continue to compete in adaptive track and field once more opportunities open up as the world gradually recovers from the pandemic.
“There’s nothing Syrus wouldn’t do to be at the track and be around the other kids,” Alvarez said. “Kids like him are lucky to have an opportunity. I have the throwers all train together on the shot put and discus. He’s been an inspiration to all of the kids on the team.”