Matt Kruger is a high school athlete. That’s the most important thing. It doesn’t really matter that the senior from Sauk Rapids-Rice runs on the junior varsity cross-country team. Or that he usually doesn’t finish among the leaders. Or that he is blind.
Matt Kruger is a high school athlete. A condition called retinitis pigmentosa may have gradually taken away his sight since he was young, but it’ll never get his determination or his desire to be part of the team.
“It’s important to him to be a part of something and a part of the school,” said Matt’s mother, Ann Kruger. “It’s been a very important part of his life.”
Matt also wrestles for the Storm, which seems a bit more understandable. But a blind runner, competing on cross-country courses that vary widely … that seems like a dangerous proposition. This is where Wade Cruser comes in.
Cruser, a former wrestling coach at Sauk Rapids-Rice, runs with Matt at most races (photo). They both hang onto a lanyard, which keeps them connected yet allows each to run freely. As they run, Wade guides Matt and tells him what to expect.
“I guess the way to put it is that I describe the course as best I can,” Cruser said at last week’s Lucky Lindy meet in Little Falls. “Today I was pretty much constantly trying to remind him, ‘OK, hills, hills, up and down, trust your footing,’ that type of thing.”
Other runners help Matt maintain his conditioning and fill in when Cruser can’t be at a competition. During practice, teammates grab the lanyard and take off alongside Matt. He views cross-country as a great way to stay in shape for wrestling, and he is indeed in great shape: lean, strong, muscular. He’s been running cross-country since seventh grade.
Yes, he occasionally falls while running. That’s something he takes in stride.
“This year it hasn’t happened but last year it was just about every meet,” Matt said. The result is “just like skinned knees and stuff.”
Sauk Rapids-Rice coach Marie Zeilenga said, “His mom, bless her heart, is totally accepting when he falls. That worries me, and he does fall. But he’s very confident in his running. It doesn’t even faze him.”
When Zeilenga (pictured helping Matt with his race number) became the Storm cross-country coach last season, she wasn’t worried about Matt’s ability to run, but keeping him safe was a concern.
“I’d say one of our biggest challenges as coaches right now is to fit him with the right person. Because there are limitations to what he’s doing but yet he’s totally capable. So it’s finding the right runner for him to make sure he’s safe out on the roads and out on the trails.
“It is a challenge and a blessing.”
Matt is a popular guy. His teammates greet him when they approach; “Hi Matt” is a common refrain around the Storm. And when he runs in a competition, it seems like nearly everyone watching calls him by name and shouts encouragement.
“Everybody knows who he is,” Cruser said. “There usually isn’t a section on the course where somebody isn’t yelling his name. He’s kind of a star.”
When the Luck Lindy race ended, other runners approached Matt and reached out to grab his right hand and shake it, telling him “Nice run” or “Good job.”
As Matt and Wade cooled down from their run, Ann approached with a bottle of Gatorade for each of them. The three chatted and laughed.
“He’s pretty quiet,” Ann said of her son. “At home he’s not so quiet. He will verbalize. He has expressed how it makes him feel good to be part of the team and do things like this.
“We are lucky. We really have an awesome school. They have really embraced him and we couldn’t ask for anything more. They are awesome at every level.”
Those good feelings go both ways. Matt’s coaches and teammates are there to support him and cheer for him, and Cruser is there when the starter’s pistol goes off.
“I enjoy coaching so I enjoy helping kids,” he said. “Matt wants to run, so let him run. He’s such a great kid, it’s hard to say no, it’s hard to not do anything you can for him.”
Matt Kruger is a high school athlete.
--To see a photo gallery of Matt in action, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 90
*Miles John has driven: 1,601
(*During the 2012-13 school year)
--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn