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Wesley Chapel boy, 6, overcomes disorder to become top triathlete

NORTH TAMPA

Lawson McLeod's parents beam with pride when they talk about the 6-year-old boy who recently became an area champion in the Livestrong triathlon.

But it's not his swimming, running and biking skills that touch Laura and Tommy McLeod most. It's the fact that he has come so far. Just two years ago, Lawson had trouble walking, much less running.

At age 4, he was diagnosed with sensory integration disorder, a condition in which someone has difficulty receiving messages from the senses and turning them into appropriate motor or behavioral responses.

The condition caused Lawson to walk on his tip-toes, which caused his heel cords to tighten. The sensory overload also caused him to have trouble paying attention in school. Teachers thought attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder might be the problem. But his mother, a former teacher in Hillsborough County and now running her own learning center, knew that wasn't the case.

"We literally had to be detectives and put all the pieces together," she said. "We learned that swinging and physical stuff was good for him, but we didn't know what would work. He had very poor coordination and balance, which is very foreign to Tommy and I because we were both college athletes." Laura played soccer at Florida Atlantic University, and Tommy played football and soccer at Yale University.

Lawson also had problems with motor skills and organizing his thoughts when he read the board at school.

The McLeods took him to Cindy Cooley, an occupational therapist. Cooley recommended serial casting, which corrected the angle of Lawson's heel cords so he could walk and run normally. The procedure continued for several months, followed by foot orthotics and wearing leg braces at night.

As Lawson improved physically, his parents involved him in traditional sports such as soccer, T-ball and martial arts. Then he started running with Laura, who participates in triathlons. The family often trains along the trails of Flatwoods Park, near New Tampa and Thonotosassa. Soon, something clicked.

On the recommendation of a friend, the McLeods took Lawson to a triathlon in Palm Harbor last year, and a champion was born.

"Lawson found himself in this sport," said Suzanne Henslee, series coordinator for the Youth Triathlon Series in the Tampa Bay area. "He's evolved into an incredible athlete."

The YTS is sponsored by the Lance Armstrong Organization and includes the Livestrong triathlons through the summer and fall.

In October, Lawson won a national IronKids challenge, besting nearly 500 competitors from 30 countries in his 6-to-8 age group. He finished in the top three in each event, including a 50-yard swim, 2-mile bike ride and 500-yard run.

Then, in November, he became the overall Livestrong series champion in his age group, garnering more hardware during the season's last meet at the Bob Sierra Family YMCA in Carrollwood.

"I like riding the best, but I enjoy all the events," said Lawson, a first-grader at Wesley Chapel Elementary.

"This is the first thing he's done that inspires him and excites him," Laura McLeod said. "He gets up in the morning and wants to do it again. He enjoys it because it's an individual sport. It gave him the structure he needed."

The benefits extend beyond the events and the championships, she said.

"It also translates into everyday life. Now he gets himself ready for school. He gets his backpack ready. Before, I had to do all that for him."

For Lawson, winning races and medals aren't the main concern. He is living the motto inscribed on his riding pants: "Anything is possible."

Joel Poiley can be reached at hillsnews@sptimes.com.

Wesley Chapel boy, 6, overcomes disorder to become top triathlete 12/02/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 2, 2010 3:30am]

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