They rolled toward the stage with applause pushing them forward. She felt like vomitting. He didn’t smile. Not at first.
And why should he? At 6 years old, Fort Lauderdale High School freshman Darrel Bouie Jr. lost his mother and the ability to use his legs when, facing a thunderstorm, their car crashed into a concrete wall.
As for Cypress Bay sophomore Isabella Matos, who wheeled herself to the stage after fighting back nerves all morning, she was born with cerebral palsy. While she doesn’t suffer from the cognitive disabilities that sometimes accompany cerebral palsy, she can’t use her legs and her spine forms a permanent arch.
“I was lucky,” she said.
Both Bouie and Matos are confined to wheelchairs. But both of them are also high school adaptive track and field athletes. And on Thursday, they were honored with the Leo Suarez/Walter Krietsch Courage Award at the Miami Herald’s All-Broward Athletic Awards breakfast at the Signature Grand in Davie.
The journey to that stage started for both athletes where many of the great journeys of adolescence commence: With the beginning of high school.
For Bouie, it happened when Fort Lauderdale coach David Martin saw his potential in the hallways.
“My coach put me on the team,” Bouie said, “because he saw me rolling fast in school.”
From there, Bouie trained and participated in the 200 meters, 800 meters and shot put — often as the only competitor, trying to improve time and distance.
His first track season culminated with a second-place finish in his favorite event — the 200 meters — in the state meet on May 6 in Bradenton. Thousands attended and cheered him to the finish line, where Bouie’s father was there to congratulate him.
Matos also started racing as a high school freshman, but in a way, the seeds were planted in her a little earlier.
When Matos was an eighth-grader at Weston’s Falcon Cove Middle School, Cypress Bay coach Joseph Monks visited. He asked Matos’ class everyone who was going to be a high school freshman to raise their hands.
When Matos did, Monks gave her a sheet explaining adaptive track and field, but Matos wasn’t interested at the time. She forgot about it.
Then, in the spring of her freshman year, Monks saw her in the hall and recognized her. He once again tried to sell her on adaptive track and field. This time, Matos wrestled with extreme hesitation before consulting her parents.
“If you don’t like it,” they told her, “at least you can say that you tried.”
So she started practicing and, like Bouie, racing against herself. That led her to the state championship meet, where she also finished second in her favorite event, the 200 meters. But in her case, the crowd support was louder. Since it was her second state meet, some spectators remembered her from last year’s competition and shouted her name.
“I have to give it my absolute best,” she told herself while racing. “All the best I have.”
After the meet, while being interviewed, she was surprised by her family — mom, dad, two cousins, her cousin’s daughter and her aunt — carrying a banner and T-Shirts reading “Go Bella Go!”
On Thursday, though, as she and Bouie glided toward the stage to a standing ovation, the question of why was inevitable. Why do Matos and Bouie choose to spend time practicing track with their limitations? They could paint or write or solve equations the same as anyone else, so why work to excel in an area where they’re limited?
For both, the answer is simple. To live as an example. Bouie wants to motivate his teammates, family and everyone he meets to overcome obstacles. Matos wants to be a role model for her 9-year-old brother, Gian. And on the track, both of them can be.
So what advice do they have for the audience at the Signature Grand and anyone who reads about them?
“No matter what,” Bouie said after smiling for pictures, “you can accomplish your dreams.”
Added Matos: “I want people to know they can do [anything].”