WHEELING - Two years ago, Landon Kovalski could not have handled the hustle and bustle of a crowded race.
But Saturday was different. Saturday, Landon, 3, triumphed over the finish line of the 5K walk at the 37th Annual Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon Classic Run and Walk to ecstatic cheers and applause. Holding the hands of his parents Heather and Brent Kovalski, Landon looked tired, but happy, and pride beamed from the faces of his friends and family wearing shirts reading "Love for Landon: Why fit in when you can stand out."
Landon is autistic and lives with multiple medical issues. When he was 10 weeks old, he started having seizures and was diagnosed with intractable seizure disorder. In addition, Landon is developmentally delayed, hypotonic and has cortical vision impairments.
Landon Kovalski, a student at the Augusta Levy Learning Center, crosses the finish line with his mother Heather Kovalski during the 5K walk. -- Sarah Harmon
"It's been a long three years," Heather Kovalski said. "He's really had a lot of struggles."
In November 2011, Landon started at Augusta Levy Learning Center in Wheeling where he has made huge improvements through applied behavioral analysis therapy, according to his teacher, Staci Stephen. ABA therapy breaks down different skills such as eye contact or communication through small attainable steps with one-on-one instruction.
"Landon has made huge strides," Stephen said. "At first he would walk in the door and immediately start crying.
But day by day, he got stronger. His personality has come a long way. His smile can melt anyone's heart."
Stephen said even the smallest tasks people take for granted such as brushing your hair was a monumental task for Landon.
However, Landon now demonstrates skills such as ball play, playing with toys and matching. Once, Landon was fed through a G-tube, but now is able to eat through his mouth and can drink through a straw. Heather Kovalski said Augusta Levy has been "a blessing" for her family and the area.
One of the traits of autistic children is a tendency to be overstimulated by crowds and noises, but according to Heather, since starting therapy Landon has improved enough to enjoy a day at the race without being overwhelmed.
"You can really see his love of being around other people," Heather Kovalski said. "He did great. He seems to really be enjoying himself and is checking everyone out."
Heather said it has been a dream of hers to complete a 5K race with Landon and was finally able to realize that Saturday by walking with Landon and his father.
"We're very blessed to have him in our lives," Heather said.
All proceeds from this year's Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon Classic Run and Walk will go to the Augusta Levy Learning Center.