No time to lose: Coaches sacrifice one love for another: their sick son, Aidan

No time to lose: Coaches sacrifice one love for another: their sick son, Aidan

By Jim Cnockaert
Journal Sports Editor

Mitch and Mindy Leffler will say that the beauty of running is not in the winning of championships — though they\'ve won plenty as athletes and as coaches — but in the lessons that the sport has to teach.

\"I learned a ton about the kind of person I wanted to be and to not be afraid to shoot for that,\" Mindy said. \"You might not be a state champion, but that\'s not the point of why you are out there.

\"That\'s where you learn the most about yourself. When you\'re out in the middle of a race, you can\'t lie to yourself about your challenges and your fears.\"

The Lefflers are in a different kind of a race now, and they\'re striving with all their being to hold tight to what they have learned through thousands of miles and what they have tried to impart to the hundreds of runners who have competed for them at Bellevue\'s Newport High School.

It is a race for life, a race against time. And, both for the moment and for the foreseeable future, it is a race they know they are likely to lose.

The Leffler\'s only son, 3-year-old Aidan, was diagnosed this spring with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. It is a inherited disorder characterized by rapidly progressive muscle weakness. Usually affecting only males, it is always fatal, with a life expectancy of 17 years.

The Lefflers understand that Aidan\'s last years will be difficult ones: He\'s likely to be unable to walk by the time he is 10-12 years old and completely paralyzed by the time he is a teen. Heart and respiratory failure are inevitable.

When training for the high school cross country season began Monday, the Lefflers were not with their Newport teams for the first time in more than a decade. For Newport runners present and past, as well as for coaches and runners at other Eastside schools, meets this fall won\'t be quite the same without them.

Aidan\'s diagnosis prompted the Lefflers to give up one of their great loves: coaching.

They could not, they believe, devote the kind of time and energy Aidan is certain to need from them without shortchanging their athletes. It was a compromise they would not make.

\"Coaching is something I thought I would do until I retired,\" said Mitch, who teaches at Sammamish High School. \"When he was diagnosed, I wanted to open up as much time for him as possible. Coaching seemed like the most sensible thing to give up. When you\'re teaching and coaching, you\'re working two jobs. That was too many hours away.\"

Running was their bond

Mitch had coached the boys team at his alma mater since 1994, and Mindy, an Issaquah High graduate, had been the girls coach since 1995. But the Lefflers, who married in 1997, never viewed their programs as separate, but rather as one big family.

And it was big: The combined programs averaged 120-140 participants a year. Successful, too. Newport\'s girls were state champions three times and runners-up twice in the past 10 years.

\"You look at the impact they had year in and year out,\" Mercer Island coach Erica Hill said. \"They had so much success, but they did it with a modest and humble approach. They had such a huge program, but it was easy to see why. Their kids always seemed like they were having a great time.\"

The Lefflers first met when they worked at H&L Sports in Bellevue Square, then the hangout for Kingco athletes. They didn\'t date until they were in college, and it was a long-distance relationship: He stayed home to run for the University of Washington; she traveled across the country to compete for Georgetown University.

But they stayed in touch, and their relationship clicked — as eventually did their coaching.

\"It has always been a team effort,\" she said.

The Lefflers have distinct personalities — she is intense and driven; he is more laid-back and naturally charismatic — but they were a perfect complement when it came to coaching.

\"Mindy is super-focused, always wanting to be in control of the situation, and you see that now in the way she is aggressively pursuing ways to treat Aidan,\" said Jodee Adams-Moore, the former Newport High star who won the Class 3A state title in 2000. \"It was never scary intensity; it was more that if you step to the plate, I will give you all my energy. Mitch was smart and funny, a little more laid-back, and kids picked up on that. They were a good match that way.\"

Aidan\'s timing seemed off

The Lefflers noticed that Aidan tended to be late in terms of developmental milestones. He also fell a lot, prompting Mitch to joke that Aidan had inherited Mindy\'s clumsiness. When Aidan broke his leg at the playground — it was not that bad of a fall, Mitch said — he was in a cast a long time.

Thinking Aidan was a little behind in his gross motor skills, Mindy took him to a physical therapist earlier this year, hoping she might suggest some exercises that would help. But after one visit, the physical therapist suspected something far worse, and subsequent tests confirmed it: Aidan\'s muscles were being destroyed.

With her typical tenacity, Mindy searched the Internet for every bit of information she could find on Duchenne muscular dystrophy. She found little that offered hope. There have been no real breakthroughs in research until recently, she said, and much of it involves working with specific muscles.

\"You think if you keep looking, you\'ll find something that helps,\" she said. \"But the more you do it, the more you realize there\'s nothing out there. There are some promising recent developments, but they are designed to slow the progression, not to turn it back. You look at your son and you realize he is losing functionality every day. It\'s a race against time, for sure.\"

Mitch\'s reaction was more in keeping with his personality: He wanted to ignore the situation.

\"A little bit I still do,\" he said. \"I figure, if things happen, we\'ll deal with them then. The more I think he\'s normal, the easier it is for me to be happy and natural with him. Some pretty horrible things will occur for him. If you think about them too much, it ruins your life right now.\"

What the Lefflers have found is the support of other families in the same situation, including one in Massachusetts that has tackled with a vengeance fundraising that will aid research. Mindy says she plans to dedicate much of her time to help those efforts.

Knights are there for them

Now it\'s payback time. Newport runners present and past are rallying to support their former coaches. Members of this year\'s team and their parents sponsored a benefit run/walk last weekend to raise money for the Aidan William Leffler Trust. Plans are to make it an annual event. Saturday\'s event attracted more than 300 participants and raised $12,050. The money will be used this year for supplemental medical care and treatment the Lefflers\' insurance does not cover.

\"Many of our (former) athletes keep in touch, even four and five years out of college, and there are a lot of them I consider to be friends,\" Mitch said. \"I think I have an even better sense now that running and cross country and the coaching that we did had an impact.

\"I always had the sense that running was a special thing,\" he added. \"I have been so completely lucky to do it. I know that even more now.\"

How to help

Donations to the Aidan William Leffler Trust can be made to account No. 1059-8450, c/o David Moskovitz Sr. VP-Private Client Group; RBC Dain Rauscher — E8. 1201 3rd Ave., Suite 2500, Seattle, WA 98101-9824.