"Ready, Jamie?" Alice Smith asked.
They clasped hands over the gearshift. Jamie rattled off an awkward version of the Lord's Prayer. Both said, "Amen," and Alice hit the gas.
As she turned off Roosevelt Road onto Damen Avenue, the West Side school where Jamie works grew smaller in the rearview mirror.
The logical route home would take about a half-hour, a straight shot south along bustling Ashland Avenue. But in his 24 years, Jamie rarely has followed logical routes. So the daily commute he chooses takes more than an hour, follows 18 different streets and twice crosses the Dan Ryan Expressway.
Alice followed Ashland for nearly 6 miles, then detoured west on 69th Street. The car dipped under a viaduct, the first of six along the route.
As they came out the other side of the bridgelike structure, Jamie quickly turned and looked back, staring for a moment, then looking forward again.
He turned back twice more before settling into his seat. He repeated the routine after each viaduct.
Alice had never understood why Jamie did this, or how he had come up with the circuitous route home. Autism is curious that way.
But four afternoons a week, she was a willing chauffeur. The ride relaxed Jamie, and that relaxed her.
On a June afternoon thick with humidity, Alice spoke over the whoosh of the air conditioner, asking Jamie about his day. His voice carried an innocence that clashed with his 6-foot-3, 180-pound frame.
"It was fine, Mama," he said.
"Fine" for Jamie is a day that unfolds like every other. As they drove west on 95th Street, he savored the sameness of the ride, ignoring thoughts of the changes that were coming, ones that would knock him from the well-worn grooves of his life.
In October, he was going to China. He would compete as a powerlifter at the Special Olympics World Games. His longtime coach, Rob DeSanto, had nominated him, writing essays about his accomplishments—the dozens of gold medals he had won, the two jobs he worked.
Friends repeatedly told him the trip to Shanghai would be the biggest moment of his life. He believed that.
But Jamie's quest would bombard his fragile senses and test his ability to navigate a world he couldn't predict. Fail or succeed, he would explore the potential of autistic adults at a time when the disorder looms large.
A decade from now, there will be an estimated 1.5 million adults with autism in the United States.
Jamie is a raindrop, a warning of the downpour soon to come.
At only 9 months, Jamie clumsily walked the hardwood floors of his family's South Side bungalow. He played with his 3-year-old brother, Cedric, cooing and cackling. He seemed, if anything, precocious.
By age 2, though, he had yet to speak a word, and Alice found him occasionally banging his head against the wall. She came to recognize his needs by the way he cried—a certain cry for hunger, another for sleepiness.
She figured speech would come, but the frustration in Jamie kept building.
"When he got upset, he'd just start banging his head," she said. "It was like he wanted to say something but he couldn't find the words, and he'd get mad at himself."
Jamie turned 3 and still couldn't speak. He acted out more, screaming angrily, and began to develop odd, compulsive behaviors. When the family sat in the living room, he would crawl along the floor and sniff each person's feet.
Doctors checked his hearing, tested for lead exposure, scrutinized blood samples.
"They couldn't find anything," Alice said.
Finally, at age 4, Jamie was referred to a psychiatrist who quickly reached a diagnosis.
"He told me my son has autism," Alice recalled. "And I'm like, 'What is autism?' I hadn't ever heard of that."
She asked: "Is he going to grow out of it? Is he going to get better?"
The doctor grimaced. He said Jamie's intellect would never exceed that of a 5-year-old.
"Something died inside me that day," Alice said. "I was only 28 years old. I had no idea what all this meant."
Autism still was a rare diagnosis in the 1980s, found in about one out of every 10,000 children. Few teachers or therapists knew how to handle the unique and unpredictable behavior that came with the disorder. Many autistic children are unable to express their needs or explain their often baffling frustrations because the disorder inhibits communication skills.
Jamie was a strong little boy, and when he lost control, flailing his arms, throwing clocks and lamps, Alice and her husband struggled to restrain him. It wasn't long before friends and relatives began suggesting he be institutionalized, a common fate at the time. "They'd say, 'You can't handle him.' Those four words. Sometimes I would be just about there," Alice said. "But there was always this innocence that was captivating. He'd come over, get up in my lap, and I knew in my heart and in my soul that that was the most comfortable place in the world for him. He just wanted to be right there. There was this sense of relaxation. He was at peace.
"That's why I couldn't do it. I couldn't take that away from him."
Alice joined one of the first waves of American parents who would slowly, often painfully, come to understand the complexities of autism.
Jamie's father focused on work and provided for Jamie financially. Alice's life became wholly consumed by her son.
She tried to mainstream him, sending him to the neighborhood preschool and kindergarten. But he wasn't learning anything, and the teachers couldn't handle his erratic behavior.
When he was 7, a new school opened on the West Side, one specifically for kids with autism. Alice swiftly enrolled Jamie, and for the first time her son was surrounded by people who could help unlock his mind.
Margaret Creedon founded the Easter Seals Therapeutic Day School, and when she met Jamie he was a skinny, kinetic boy, barely verbal, with a permanent scar from banging the back of his head against the bedroom wall. He had chewed his fingernails so far down they bled.
Still, she saw a capable person wrapped in an autistic cocoon. When happy, he had an ebullient personality, and he smiled ear-to-ear any time he accomplished the simplest of tasks.
"I always knew Jamie could climb the ladder," Creedon said. "You just had to show him how to get up each rung."
Jamie began speaking more and learning. Alice, now meeting other parents of autistic children, was learning too. Every child experiences autism differently, but she found solace in the common threads.
Most, like Jamie, struggled to make emotional connections. Hugs rarely seemed heartfelt. All the children had difficulty interpreting social cues and emotions, such as happiness, sarcasm or anger.
This put her son and his sometimes robotic behavior in perspective.
Not long after he arrived at Easter Seals, Jamie joined many of his fellow students competing in local Special Olympics events. Autism provided him boundless energy and a desire for rules and structure. Competition became a central part of his life, as did a need to win.
There were ups and downs, but Jamie continued to make progress, gaining responsibility and self-control. When he reached adulthood, Easter Seals counselors helped him get a job at a South Side produce store. After he graduated, they gave him a second job as an assistant in the school's adult vocational program.
Work is vital for many adults with autism, and scarce. Jamie didn't know it, but he was living a dream, working seven days a week and fulfilling the common autistic need to stay busy.
As he grew up, the incidence of autism diagnosis in America began to explode. Now, one out of every 150 newborns will have the disorder—for boys the figure is a staggering one out of 90. Researchers are struggling to understand the steep increase.
Alice saw progress made in early intervention, but that wasn't going to help her adult son. Life with Jamie remained difficult.
A minor change in routine, like arriving a few minutes late for work, could upend his world. In a tantrum last year, Jamie shattered the mirrored doors of a closet near his second-floor bedroom, partially tearing them from their hinges.
Still, Alice considered herself and Jamie lucky. Most adults with autism age out of the school system at a critical point in their lives, ready for further challenges and needing a new focus for their energy.
In the decades-long push to raise autism awareness, the focus has been primarily on children. Until recently, little thought was given to what will happen once these children grow up. Most end up stuck at home, spiraling deeper into isolation.
Eventually, their parents will die, leaving many to rely on relatives or the state.
With no clear plan, Alice wept at the thought of Jamie trying to live without her.
"We're not going to be here forever, but he's going to need someone to take care of him, always," she said. "It's my responsibility as a mother to make sure that happens."
She shook off fears of the distant future, focused on the present.
Jamie had his jobs and his competitions. He had a measure of independence.
And he would soon have a chance to travel halfway around the world.
Jamie weaved through the aisles of Pete's Produce, eyes scanning the shelves for anything that needed restocking—pasta, soup, spices. He grabbed a broom and swept the tile floor just past the registers, then began methodically mopping the aisles in the produce section.
For seven years, he had worked three days a week at the store on West 87th Street. His manager never tired of watching him, calling him "the greatest stock boy ever."
"He's amazing," Manuel Alvarez said as Jamie zipped past, a tall, apron-clad blur. "If I could have a whole crew of Jamies, I'd be in business."
It's here at work that autism allows Jamie to shine. He craves movement, familiar actions and a sense of purpose. Without them, he becomes anxious and agitated. So aside from a mandatory lunch break, he works briskly and ceaselessly.
Throughout one regular Friday shift, Jamie obsessively monitored the drink coolers in front of each register line, making sure they were fully stocked and in perfect order. He never stopped to examine them. Instead, he glanced in passing, instantly assessing whether any drinks were missing.
As he carried six heads of lettuce to the produce section, he once again eyed the drinks. Jamie dropped the lettuce heads gently in their bin and then returned to the coolers. He deftly replaced a single bottle of Tropicana peach-papaya juice before moving, thoroughly satisfied, to the next chore.
Jamie supplements his state disability checks with money he earns at his two jobs, but order and predictability are the true currencies of his life. Without them, his senses get overwhelmed and the world fragments into kaleidoscopic swirls of baffling information.
So he's at the produce store Friday through Sunday. Every Monday through Thursday, with metronomic rhythm, he works as a teacher's assistant at Easter Seals' vocational program, organizing projects for other autistic adults.
On Thursdays at 11:45 a.m. he hustles up the stairs and out the door to a nearby cafeteria. He grabs one slice of cheese pizza in a triangular box and a pack of chocolate Pop Tarts.
The register reads $3.90, just as it does every Thursday. That seems to make him happy.
At 12:30 p.m. sharp he's back at his work table. An hour and a half later he'll race to his mother's car in the parking lot, ready for the mazelike ride home.
On a hot morning in May, Jamie paced the firm, green turf of Soldier Field, preparing to speak at the opening ceremonies of the Chicago Special Olympics games. For days he had practiced scripted lines with his coach and family, over and over until he had them memorized.
Before the crowds arrived, he walked confidently to the podium to rehearse.
"Hi, my name is Jamie."
His voice boomed through the stadium's public-address system and ricocheted off the cavernous concrete stands. He froze—the echo had tripped him up.
He started again, tentatively, spoke one word—"Hi"—and stopped.
His eyes grew wide, frightened. His confident grin vanished. He turned in a huff from the podium and shouted: "I got messed up. That microphone is not good. It's not good!"
His coach, Rob DeSanto, rushed to his side to comfort him.
Rob, a jolly bear of a man, had coached him in Special Olympics events across Illinois for nearly a decade, watching him develop from a lanky kid who ran track to a sturdy, gold medal-winning powerlifter. In competitions, Rob's emotions rose and fell with Jamie's, and he routinely was in the ear of any judge who questioned his athlete's form.
The two met in the late 1990s at the Easter Seals school. Jamie was a student and Rob had just become a teacher, following a dream to work with kids with disabilities that dated back to his own childhood, when he struggled with epileptic seizures.
Rob immediately recognized Jamie's competitive drive. He became Jamie's coach and, sharing an almost childlike sense of humor, his friend.
Jamie's mom—protective as a bulldog—wasn't sure what to think about Rob at first. Here was a white man from the suburbs, almost a caricature of your typical Chicago guy: heavyset, quick with a wisecrack, passionate about his Chicago Bears, right down to the team watch wrapped tight around his wrist.
But he won Alice over with one unquestionable quality: He loved Jamie.
The coach often had seen Jamie's life transform from calm to chaos in a matter of moments. That's why, at Soldier Field, Rob knew exactly what was coming.
"Get my mom," Jamie said, his voice quivering. "I'm upset. I'm getting very upset!"
Jamie's brain, like those of most people with autism, is slow to adjust to change. It takes time and repetition for him to understand that it's OK when something isn't the way he thinks it should be or the way it has always been.
"Jamie, it's just that microphone, it's making everything sound funny," Rob said. "You're doing fine. Just get up there and do it like you did in my office the other day."
"All right, Rob," Jamie said, looking anything but confident. "I'm gonna get up there and do it real good this time."
Back and forth, the conversation repeated itself—Rob trying to comfort and cajole, Jamie answering that he would "do it real good this time."
Rob didn't doubt him. He couldn't. Jamie needed him to believe.
Twenty minutes later, hundreds gathered in the stands. Jamie stood at the podium and launched into his speech. This time he didn't stop.
"I . . . am . . . a . . . powerlifter . . ."
He wasn't comfortable. He wasn't smooth. But Rob had told him what to expect.
As he finished, the crowd's wild applause thrilled him. He beamed, flashing two thumbs-up signs.
Jamie doesn't have the build of a typical powerlifter. It's a sport for the stocky—the shorter the arms and legs, the less distance to heave bar-bending weight. But Jamie has managed to get the most from his tall, muscular frame, grunting and roaring his way to dominance in local and state Special Olympics competitions.
With an encyclopedic knowledge of professional wrestlers—and a bedroom plastered with posters of muscle-bound pros like Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Game—the pursuit of bulging biceps seemed a natural fit. It's also a solitary sport, one with strict rules and little variance. On the padded bench, there was only Jamie, the weights and a clearly defined, rhythmic task: lift up, lift down, rack.
In his first competition in 2003, Jamie benched 100 pounds. Legs spread wide, hips bent, he hoisted 170 pounds up to a standing position in the dead lift. He won two gold medals.
Within three years he moved up to more than 200 pounds on the bench press and more than 300 pounds on the dead lift.
"He has to do well in everything," Rob said. "He's such a perfectionist. He doesn't accept second place. It's hard to get him to accept that sometimes there are people out there that are better than you."
Jamie kept only the gold medals. All silvers and bronzes went to his grandmother in Texas.
In June, he, Rob and a group of other Easter Seals athletes rode a bus down to Normal for the Illinois Special Olympics State Games. The event had no bearing on the World Games, but it was Jamie's last formal competition before heading overseas in October.
The powerlifters gathered on a creaky stage in an Illinois State University lecture hall. Jamie was in a boisterous mood, pacing about and grinning, laughing about a movie he had watched in the dorm the previous night.
" 'Rocky III' with Mr. T.," he shouted. "Hah-hah! I watched that last night. That Mr. T, he got 'em real good."
When his turn came, Jamie walked confidently to the bench and waited for the judges command to lift.
Jamie lowered the bar to his chest.
He forcefully exhaled and pushed the bar up.
The three judges ruled Jamie's form perfect and signaled so by illuminating three white lights. Jamie got off the bench and looked at the lights. Panic washed over his face.
Normally, those lights would be green. Green is for good, red is for bad. That was what Jamie had always known.
"Rob," he said, "where are the green lights? What did I do wrong?"
"The white lights are good, Jamie," Rob said, walking him to the rear of the stage. "You want three of them. That's good."
"But where are the green lights, Rob? The green lights are good. What did I do wrong?"
Rob looked worried. For 10 minutes he tried to explain. Maybe they ran out of green lights, he said. It's OK. The white lights are good. You want the white lights.
But Jamie still looked panicked, confused.
On his next lift, he forgot to wait for the command to start. Three red lights.
He lifted a foot up during his third try, a form violation. Three red lights.
"This is the autism," Rob said, shaking his head. "He's flustered. He's out of sync."
As Jamie walked off the stage, he looked at his coach.
"Rob, it was kind of tough," he said, voice cracking.
"Are you upset?" Rob asked.
"Probably so," said Jamie. "I'm upset about it too."
That evening, Jamie was dancing with friends on the Illinois State football field, his smile wide, showing no signs of his earlier distress. But Rob was still concerned, faced with a stark reminder of his athlete's fragility.
"I don't know," the coach said. "I sure hope they have green lights in China."
"How you feel, dude?" Alice said, looking over at her son.
"All right," Jamie said flatly.
Alice would have given anything for more than that, for some assurance that Jamie knew what he was in for, but nothing came. He just stared blankly out the car window at thick traffic on Cicero Avenue.
It was a balmy July morning and Jamie soon would be on a plane to a World Games training camp, the first major step on his journey to China. But his mother couldn't stop thinking about the last time he flew.
That was in 1998, during a sightseeing flight over Niagara Falls with his classmates from the Easter Seals school. Halfway through the round trip he started to panic, and teachers had to talk him down, nursing him through the rest of the flight.
With that in mind, Alice rattled off a list of reminders for his training camp trip: Listen to your coaches. If anything hurts, tell someone. Enjoy yourself.
Jamie nodded and followed each piece of advice with a soft, "OK, Mama."
But he never shifted his gaze. He was detached, softly humming a high-pitched, ever-changing tune that slips out whenever he's anxious.
In the terminal at Midway Airport they joined a cluster of Special Olympics coaches and other Illinois athletes. Alice quickly found Brianna Beers, a coach who agreed to sit with Jamie on the flight. She pulled Beers aside. Jamie had never been away from both his mother and his Easter Seals family.
"I know this is what you do," Alice said, polite but stern. "But please take care of my baby. Please understand, this is my baby, my life."
For 24 years, Alice has been there to decipher the world for Jamie, and shield him from its rough edges. She lifted him up when people stared at him like he was from another planet. She protected him from the local toughs who tried to prey on him. She stopped store clerks who tried to shortchange him.
"I'm two people when I'm with Jamie," Alice said. "I'm feeling for him and I'm feeling for me. I have to be him in a way, to feel the parts that he's missing."
But this time she had to let go.
She yearned for an embrace and some tears. Jamie gave her a stiff hug, his arms barely touching her. She knew that was the most emotion he could muster.
He said, "I love you, Mama."
And he was off.
Alice walked slowly out of the terminal, sweating and furrowing her brow, wiping away tears all the way back to the car.
As the plane pulled away from the gate, Jamie gripped Brianna's hand. The window shades were all closed tight. His eyes were wide and he asked rapid-fire questions: So everything's OK, right, Brianna? We're taking off now, already? Everything's OK with you then, right?
As the plane leveled, his grip loosened. Ninety minutes later, he felt brave enough to peer out the window at the patchwork fields of Tennessee. He hit the ground happy.
On the first night of training camp, Jamie strutted into a ballroom on the Vanderbilt University campus with a grin that tried to break through the sides of his face.
"I'm havin' a good time in Nashville," he said, looking out at a parquet dance floor full of Special Olympics athletes bouncing to a disc jockey's beats. "I can't wait to tell everyone about this. This is really fun, to me."
He began to weave through the crowds, stopping to introduce himself and shake hands.
"Hi, my name is Jamie. What's your name?"
He sped happily from person to person, working the room like a salesman, posing for pictures, then hurrying on to the next stranger. For him, it had become a game.
In a room thick with people, Jamie remained very much alone.
Rob sat in his cramped office at Easter Seals and shook his head.
"I don't think Jamie grasps the gravity that he's competing against the world," he said. "We're going to start from scratch right now, make sure the technique is flawless."
Only two months remained before the World Games. Jamie's time at the Special Olympics training camp showed he could handle traveling, that he could manage in an unfamiliar environment. But his form was nowhere near good enough for the level of competition he would soon face.
He was a long way from winning a medal in China.
In Nashville he had met his Team USA coach for the Shanghai games, Mitch Guthrie. After the training camp, Mitch contacted Rob and told him Jamie needed more training.
Rob had brought Jamie this far, but with time waning, they needed help.
One Easter Seals teacher, an avid weight lifter, began taking Jamie to a nearby gym on Mondays. Another teacher's husband, once a competitive powerlifter, trained Jamie at their northwest Indiana home every Thursday.
Carefully building the new training regimen into Jamie's routine, they drilled him over and over again, making sure his form was exact and he followed commands without fault.
Jamie seemed fired up by the extra training. He began working out more on his weight bench at home, eyes fixed on the ceiling, neck veins bulging. He lowered his sweaty frame to the carpet, back down, legs bent, pumping out stomach crunches with the cadence of a drill sergeant. One, ah-huh, two, ah-huh, three, ah-huh . . .
At home and in public, he constantly sought out his reflection, flexing his biceps in any mirror or window he could find.
His confidence grew, but his autism stayed the same, and at times that made the coming journey seem precarious.
One Friday in August, Jamie took a rare day off from Pete's Produce—he went to a friend's birthday party. The following Monday, Alice took him, as always, to the produce store to pick up his paycheck.
The check amount was smaller than normal because of the day off.
Mama, my paycheck's wrong, Jamie said.
No, baby, you took Friday off. Remember?
No, Mama. This isn't right. Why is my paycheck wrong?
As they drove north toward Easter Seals, Jamie's frustration built. Alice tensed up. She knew what was coming.
Jamie hurled a roll of mints against the windshield, sending them pinging off the windows. He lifted one of his legs up and brought his foot down with a violent thump on the dashboard, his screeching drowning out the soft soul music on the radio. He smacked himself violently in the face and chest.
Though she had been through it many times before, Alice was terrified. She didn't want to pull over. She wanted to get him to the school as fast as possible, and she called ahead to tell counselors there what was happening.
When she pulled into the parking lot, two of the teachers, who had known Jamie since he was a kid, were waiting. He was still bellowing as they led him into the school.
For half an hour he paced the second-floor halls, not speaking to anyone. Finally, Melanie Gomez sat him down, talked gently about what had happened, then firmly told him his behavior was unacceptable.
If he behaved like that, he couldn't work. If he behaved like that, he wouldn't go to China.
For weeks, Melanie and other teachers and counselors at the school tried to prepare Jamie psychologically for his trip.
Melanie, who was Jamie's boss in the adult vocational center, made up a calendar outlining precise details of the journey—where he would be each day, what time his flights would take off and land, how many hours he would need to set his watch ahead. She knew a schedule and an understanding of what was to come was the best going-away gift she could give him.
Though Rob wasn't chosen as a World Games coach, he was going as a spectator. He had his bags packed days before leaving. He wondered aloud what the experience would be like, and played out different scenarios in his head, all involving Jamie winning the gold.
"He deserves this," Rob said. "He's worked hard, and this is going to be his moment. I just know it."
On Sept. 25, Jamie said goodbye to Alice and Rob, joining the team at a hotel near O'Hare International Airport. The next morning, he boarded a commercial flight clad in a navy blue Team USA T-shirt and sweat pants. He and 10 other Illinois athletes were bound for Los Angeles, where they would meet up with athletes from across the country, then board a chartered flight to Shanghai.
The Special Olympics staff and coaches understood what a test this was for Jamie. They kept a close eye on him on the flight to California, answering his rapid-fire questions and doing their best to keep him distracted. On the second leg of the journey to China he was either in his seat, transfixed by an in-flight movie, or doing fast-paced laps around the cabin.
In a sure sign he was nervous, Jamie asked every person he saw: So everything's OK with you, then?
He asked some of the athletes the same question half a dozen times. They began complaining to Mitch, but he told them to let it go. That was just Jamie being Jamie. Besides, the movie player on the plane had broken, and all Jamie had left to do was walk around. There would be plenty more questions to come.
As the flight touched down at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, Mitch exhaled, relieved. Jamie had made it this far, more than 14 hours in the air. Mitch figured that was half the battle.
A few days later, Alice was at home preparing for the flight she and Rob would take to China. The phone rang. It was someone from Easter Seals.
Rob was dead.
Alice heard the words, but couldn't believe them. Her heart felt like it might pound out of her chest.
Doctors suspect Rob's death was related to his epilepsy, though they are still not sure of an exact cause. He was 36 years old.
Numb and grieving, Alice left the next day for Shanghai alone, convinced news of the coach's death had to be kept from her son. She feared it would be too much for him to handle. She wouldn't let it destroy everything Rob had helped Jamie achieve.
Jamie found himself in the heart of a neon-draped city of 18 million. Aging high-rise apartments spread across the landscape like tobacco-stained teeth, laundry covering every window in patchwork colors. Rivers of cars, taxis and rickety trucks droned incessantly and filled the tropically humid summer air with an almost sooty exhaust.
This was a city born to overwhelm the senses.
Jamie had spent several days living with a Chinese host family. They made dumplings together around the kitchen table. The mother and father tried to teach Jamie origami, but he grew frustrated and slumped down alone on the family's sofa, asking if he could just watch TV.
At opening ceremonies, he marched through Shanghai Stadium to the cheers of more than 70,000 spectators and watched sparks from a brilliant array of thunderous fireworks fall from the sky.
Through it all, Jamie seemed remarkably unfazed, as if defying autism. Maybe the weeks of mental preparation worked. Maybe a survival instinct, triggered by a world of rampant changes, kept his emotions in check. Or perhaps it was just another unexpected quirk of his mysterious disorder.
On Oct. 3, five days before his competition, he sat on a weight bench, working out in a narrow, steamy gym. A few spots down was a group of Syrian powerlifters, and past them a cluster of athletes from the Philippines.
He calmly followed his coach's commands. After one lift he looked up at Mitch.
"I did real good, right?" Jamie asked, nodding his head yes, not waiting for an answer. "I got it real good that time."
He flexed his muscles and pounded his chest.
"I'm monstered up!"
When he got off the team bus at the hotel, Alice stood waiting. After a hug she stepped back and eyeballed her son top to bottom.
"Baby you've lost weight," she exclaimed with motherly concern. "Have you been eating enough?"
"Yeah, Mom. I'm eating good," Jamie said.
She lifted his Team USA shirt and examined his belly.
"I don't think he's getting enough food," she said, shaking her head.
They chatted in the hotel lobby. Alice wanted to know every detail of the trip. But after about 10 minutes, Jamie grew distracted.
"I better go up to my room now, Mom," he said, heading off to the elevator without even a kiss goodbye.
"He's treating me like he does at home," she said, shrugging her shoulders. "So at least I know he's comfortable."
Amid all the distractions, Jamie never asked why Rob wasn't there.
In fact, he didn't notice Rob's absence until about five minutes before he was supposed to compete.
Jamie was with his mother near the front of Zaibei Gymnasium. Hundreds of Chinese schoolchildren, all dressed in white, sat in the stands rattling toy clappers that filled the room with the sound of plastic thunder. A stage rose up from the gym floor, backed by a curtain that carried a broad banner announcing the theme of the 2007 Special Olympics: "I know I can."
Racks of circular weights sat center stage, bathed in light. The recorded boom of an up-tempo symphony pulsed through the room.
Jamie looked at Alice, confused.
"So Rob's not going to be here, then?" Jamie asked.
"No, dear. Rob got sick and he wasn't able to make the flight."
"OK. So Rob's not going to be here then, right, Mama?"
"That's right, baby. But listen."
Alice pulled Jamie close. She put her hand on his chin and made sure his eyes were looking into hers.
"Rob's right here, Jamie," she said, pounding the flat of her hand on his chest. "He's in your heart."
"You can do this," Alice said. "You can do this. You can do it."
"I know," Jamie said, unconvincingly. "I can do it. I believe it."
He tried to shake his mom's hand. She pushed it away and grabbed him, squeezing him tight.
The Team USA powerlifters were a boisterous group, nearly two dozen men and women of such disparate heights, body shapes, abilities and disabilities that no two seemed remotely alike. But they were unified, and loud:
"C'mon Jamie! Let's go!"
Jamie walked onto the stage, sank his hands into a bowl of talcum powder then clapped them together. He seemed to like the dramatic effect of the thick puff of white dust.
He was competing against five other men in his weight class.
His first attempt was light, 140 pounds, but it was critical.
Just days before the competition, Mitch had unwittingly put more weight on the bar than Jamie could handle. When he wasn't able to lift it, Jamie became flustered.
He talked about it for a day or so, asking Mitch, "You're not going to put too much on the bar, right? I'm going to be able to lift it next time, right?"
During his first lift at the Illinois State Games in June, Jamie had lost his composure when the judges' lights turned out to be white instead of the familiar green. It ruined the rest of his performance. If he failed this first lift, a similar meltdown could follow.
Jamie approached the rack, fixed his shoulders under the bar and assumed the starting position. On command, he bent his knees and began to squat, head up, eyes focused forward. He flexed his legs at the next command, driving himself to an upright position, then dropped the bar back onto the rack with a clang.
The three judges illuminated two white lights and one red. Two out of three meant a good lift.
Jamie's hands shot up in the air. This time he had been coached to understand that there would be no green lights, that white meant good.
He knew he had done it.
His second squat was flawless, so was the third.
Each time Jamie came to the stage, his confidence seemed higher. He steamrolled through three sets of bench press, pumping his fist harder after each good lift.
The crowd loved him. After each round he turned to them, put his hands flat together in front of his chest and bowed like a warrior.
The final competition was the dead lift. The bar rested on the ground—260 pounds awaited.
Standing upright, Jamie spread his feet wide. He squatted down, back at a 45-degree angle to the floor, butt thrust out, long fingers wrapped tight around the shiny silver bar.
His eyes moved past the crowd in front of him and on to a green Special Olympics logo on the wall at the front of the gym.
A judge said, "Lift!"
Jamie's mouth opened in a near-perfect circle as he slowly pulled the bar up. He scowled like one of the pro wrestlers he idolized.
As his hips straightened and the bar moved past his knees, he released a guttural RAHHHHHHH!
The form was perfect. No mistakes. All white lights.
Mitch let out a whoop. Jamie had just become one of the best in the world.
He medaled in each lift—bronze in the squat, bronze in the dead lift, silver in the bench press—and won silver for the overall competition.
Alice, in the stands, smiled tearfully. Mitch, on the floor, could barely believe it.
"He was more focused than I've ever seen him," the coach said, breathlessly. "All these people and all these distractions. I just told him, 'Focus. It's just you and the weight.' I'm so damn proud of him."
It was just after 4 a.m. in Chicago. The teachers and therapists who had taught Jamie to get up every day and navigate an often frightening world didn't yet know of his success. Neither did Rob's family, who had buried the coach in his hometown of Chicago Heights days earlier. The news would reach them soon enough.
On the stage in Zaibei Gymnasium, Jamie stood tall and soaked in the attention. He bent his knees and bowed his head, as another prize was gently lowered around his neck.
In all his years of competition, bronze and silver had never been good enough for Jamie. He had always shipped those medals to his grandmother in Texas.
But not this time. These he would keep for himself.
Jamie returned from China on a Friday night and wanted to go to work at Pete's Produce first thing Saturday morning. Alice said no, he needed to rest.
She also knew she had to tell him the truth about Rob.
They sat on Jamie's narrow bed, flanked by clusters of gold medals hanging on the wall—23 to the right, 22 to the left, another batch of 24 stuffed in the closet. Rob had played a role in Jamie getting most of those awards. They paved his way to victory in Shanghai.
Alice took Jamie's hand and slowly explained what happened to his coach.
Rob's dead, Mama? he asked, over and over again.
Yes, baby, she said. He's gone. But I just know he's so proud of you.
After about 10 minutes Jamie said he needed to watch TV. Alice knew that was her cue to leave.
The next morning they drove to a drugstore and Jamie brought up Rob again. This time he cried. It was the first time she had ever seen him cry for anybody other than himself.
All weekend Jamie said over and over that he couldn't believe Rob was dead, as if repeating it would force the idea into the tight structure of his life.
On Monday, Oct. 15, Jamie returned to work at Easter Seals. He strutted, shoulders thrust back, his four World Games' medals fanned across his chest. He soaked up the pats on the back, the handshakes from those who stopped to admire his bronze and silver awards.
"You the man, Jamie," said one teacher, passing by.
"Yep," Jamie said, nodding his head, "I'm the man too."
At 9:55 a.m., the young autistic adults in the vocational program began to file into the basement room and take their seats at folding tables, signaling the beginning of the work day. Jamie watched his friends for a moment then turned on his heels and walked to his black backpack hanging on the wall.
He bent his head down, lifted off the four medals and stuffed them into the backpack.
He went to his table and looked down at the array of red bins, at the screws and washers and small plastic parts. A moment passed. Then he spoke, to no one in particular.
"I better get back to work."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun