Whether it’s calculating speed, angles or general trajectory, every good hurdler knows there is a science to the event.
Newburyport’s Cullen Sullivan has never struggled with the mathematical side of the sport because his brain is hard-wired to crunch numbers. But track is a group activity, and like all team sports, there’s a communal aspect that comes with fitting in with the rest of your squad mates.
It’s these social conditions that have presented the biggest challenges for Sullivan, who has autism and doesn’t possess some of the natural instincts that come so easily to most teenagers. After all, there are no logarithms or sets of equations for things like sarcasm, team chemistry and reading people’s actions and behaviors.
By facing these discomforts head on, the senior has become a valued and respected member of three different athletic squads at NHS, where Sullivan joined the football, indoor and outdoor track teams to get the full high school experience.
“He’s a really smart kid. That comes easily to him, which is nice because he doesn’t struggle with reading or math, but socially just being able to read people’s faces and navigate that world of high school is tough,” said Sullivan’s mother, Kathleen, who moved with her family up North years ago after living in Louisiana.
“I can’t say enough nice things about the kids he’s played with both in football and track. I think the coaches treat him as an athlete and the kids treat him as a peer and that’s helped him to feel comfortable with his differences.”
Watching him in his element, soaring over hurdles on the track at lightning speed, one would hardly be able to differentiate the speedster from his Clipper teammates.
Sullivan, who is a superb student and incredibly intelligent young man, is well aware he isn’t like his peers, but he’s also learned that with enough work, he can be just one of the guys. And it’s made his time on head coach Tim Foley’s track team enjoyable and fulfilling.
To put it simply, Sullivan isn’t afraid of a challenge.
“I have tendency to be pretty lazy, to be completely honest, and track has given me something to work hard for,” said Sullivan. “It’s been a pretty good experience overall. Coach Foley is a great coach. I’m just trying to become a better athlete and a better man.”
It takes a lot of maturity to put aside any hesitations and dive head first into the world of high school athletics when you struggle with social interaction.
But it also takes the right kind of community to make someone with Sullivan’s personality type feel welcome.
“It’s a testament to the great families who have raised great kids. They know he has his differences, but they roll with it and that’s a comforting thing as parent,” said his mother. “Without that, no matter what his talent is, if he didn’t have coaches and kids supporting him, he wouldn’t have reached where he’s at. It’s the environment that has allowed him to excel.”
Rising to the challenge
With older siblings, Sullivan saw first-hand the value of participating in team sports. His brother Seamus, who is two years his elder, played football and track, so as a freshman, Cullen decided to follow in his footsteps.
Athletics aren’t easy for Sullivan, who has to work extra hard with things like hand-eye coordination, making football difficult and sports like basketball and baseball nearly impossible.
The prospect of Cullen on the gridiron, playing such a dangerous sport where head trauma is always a danger, didn’t quite sit right with his mother. But as concerned as she was, she didn’t want to hold her son back, so she let him don the crimson and gold for Ed Gaudiano and then Mike Levine this year.
“I’ve tried really hard to raise him to think he can do whatever he wants to do,” said Kathleen Sullivan. “He should be able to try whatever he wants to try. I was nervous, but you have to taper it to give him the opportunity to try things he wants to try so he isn’t afraid.”
After shadowing Seamus for a year, he told Foley he wanted to make varsity when he returned for his sophomore season. The longtime Clipper track coach, who has three decades of experience working with special needs kids, challenged the budding track star to try hurdling.
Despite some initial uncertainty, Sullivan decided he’d give it a go, and by the beginning of his sophomore winter track season, he had qualified for the state meet in the event.
From team player to team leader
Now, as a senior, he isn’t just the top hurdler on the team, Sullivan is also a leader.
“I made him the leader of the hurdler group. He didn’t want to at first, but he wowed the kids. He has it down. He is a very bright boy,” said Foley. “I wanted to see what would happen and he grabbed the ball and went with it. I’m so proud of him.”
Sullivan doesn’t just act like a leader, he performs like one too. Not only is he the No. 1 hurdler who has won all but one of his meets this year, he has also joined the high jumpers, who needed a little extra boost after the graduation of All-American Alec Reduker.
The commitment Sullivan has made is not lost on his teammates.
“It’s great to have him on the team. With us not having Alec, (Sullivan) is going to be a big part of our team and so far he’s performing really well. We’re lucky to have him,” said Clipper captain John Sokol.” He’s great. He’s always fired up and he’s the one running the fastest. He’s a good teammate and definitely an easy kid to get along with because he always tries his best and always has a good attitude.”
A more confident Clipper
Foley has seen more than his fair share of phenomenal athletes in his 22 years at the helm of the indoor track squad, and he says Sullivan is faster than the senior realizes, and that he’s improved his technique dramatically over the years.
While the track guru in Foley loves seeing Sullivan execute better and doing things like no longer dragging his tail leg, the teacher and coach in Foley enjoys seeing Sullivan’s social side prosper.
“As a competitor he has much more self-confidence. He gets along well with the kids and they respect him. It’s opened up a big world for him and he feels very comfortable,” said Foley. “He’s willing to joke around. He understands things better than before. Someone who is on the spectrum as he is, there’s not a lot of eye contact and their head will be down. Now his head is much more up. He has the self-confidence.”
His mother has also noticed that her son is more self-assured.
When he first started, Sullivan had to get used to learning all the techniques and finding a way to make them mesh with his raw athletic talent. Now that he’s found his stride, he is surprising everyone, including his No. 1 fan.
“I am kind shocked at times by it,” Kathleen Sullivan said of seeing her son take first place almost every night. “I think it’s great, especially for a kid like him, because he is actually really good at it. He tries, he really tries to do the best he can and be the best he can be at it. It’s just a great thing. I love watching him.”
But nobody knows just how much Sullivan has benefited from his time playing football and running track than Sullivan himself. And he wants other kids who are on the spectrum to know how valuable the experience can be.
“I’d say sports have helped with (my autism) a lot because of meeting people and having that shared experience and being on a team together,” said Sullivan. “There is no replacement for the experience you get by being on a team. It’s the people you meet and the fun you have with those people.”
An integral purpose of high school sports is giving kids a place to belong, and there’s no doubt Sullivan feels at home in athletics where he’s just another fun-loving Clipper hurdling over obstacles on and off the track.