“Your Story” is a new series from FOX40’s Eric Harryman that explores extraordinary people who have turned the tables on fate and created success stories in unlikely places.
SACRAMENTO — Every step of the way, John Almeda has heard encouraging words from his mother, Vanessa.
Those steps started with a huge leap in 1996.
“I had not heard of autism. This is 1996, there’s no, ‘Hey, Google.’ There’s no, ‘Siri, what’s autism?'” Vanessa told FOX40.
Vanessa described John’s non-verbal autism diagnosis 23 years ago as daunting and isolating.
“I would say he’s autistic and they would say ‘artistic?’ No, there was really not a lot of compassion back then,” Vanessa said.
Turns out compassion wasn’t what they needed at all.
“While we were on this journey to desensitize him from the world, there were a lot of meltdowns and self-injurious behavior,” his mother explained.
A major turning point gave John the energy he needed — and plenty of it.
“One word: Puberty!” Vanessa said.
Then during one of their walks, Vanessa said they came upon an open gate to a track. It was a gateway to something no one expected.
His first mile was clocked at 5 minutes and 27 seconds. His attitude had completely turned around. He was positive and excited.
It was obvious to everyone that something had changed in John.
“To everybody. To family, friends, his teachers at school,” Vanessa said.
The track soon became another form of therapy and the races were his milestones. He went from 5K races, to 10K races, to half marathons and 20-mile races.
Then he got to run one of the most highly regarded and respected qualifying races in the world. When John crossed the finish line at the Boston Marathon it represented so much more than any medal ever could.
“No one gave him this, he earned it,” Vanessa said through tears.
“He ran in the rain. He ran on a broken ankle. He ran four days a week. He changed his diet, he couldn’t have Reese’s Pieces Peanut Butter Cups every night.”
Every parent has those key moments that make them more proud than anything else. For Vanessa, the Boston Marathon was one of those moments.
John’s confidence in running shoes has translated into aspects of his life that can be difficult to navigate for even normally functioning 25-year-olds, like his relationship with his first girlfriend.
“Will he ever experience love? Will he experience a career? Will he ever experience just joy in the world? And here we are and he can put a check mark by all of those things,” Vanessa said.
However, it’s pretty clear that John’s biggest motivator, cheerleader and first true love has been by his side all along, proving a diagnosis doesn’t define you.
“Do what you love and do it often, and that’s what John’s doing,” Vanessa said. “John, thank you so much for giving me this new life and helping me find my way. Thank you, I love you.”