‘She Really Is Just Sunshine’: Running, Not Autism, Defines Hartford’s Davis

  • Hartford freshman Bethany Davis, 14, left, celebrates with her friend, Dartmouth sprinter Kayla Gilding after her 3:37.84 finish in the 1000 meter run at the Dartmouth Relays in Leverone Field House in Hanover, N.H., Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019. The time qualifies Davis for the Vermont state meet and leaves her with only one second to make up before setting a new record for the distance at Hartford High. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Distance runner Bethany Davis, 14, of White River Junction, prepares to check in for the 1000 meter run at the Dartmouth Relays in Hanover, N.H., Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hartford High School freshman Bethany Davis, 14, waits for the starting gun for the 1000 meter run during the Dartmouth Relays at Leverone Field House in Hanover, N.H., Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bethany Davis approaches the finish after five laps in the 1000 meter run at the Dartmouth Relays in Hanover, N.H., Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Betheny Davis, 14, of White River Junction, gets a hug from her dad Ken after running in the Dartmouth Relays at Leverone Field House in Hanover, N.H., Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/13/2019 11:21:12 PM

Hanover — One thing’s for sure: Bethany Davis loves to run.

She studies it, nurtures it, smiles when asked about it. Davis, 14, a freshman distance runner for Hartford High, dreams about running in college one day — only for Dartmouth College, of course. Get her in a distance race, and it’s tough to slow her down.

Davis was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome — a mild version of autism — and epilepsy at a young age. Her parents say she has two emotions: blissfully happy or scared to death. She suffers from anxiety as well: Davis can get uncontrollably tense and nervous, be overwhelmed by people or noise, lose sleep the night before meets. Her body also is unable to do things that the way other athletes do by instinct.

Yet none of that has stopped her. Davis, in her debut indoor track season for the Canes, set a Hartford school record in the 3,000-meter run at a recent regular season meet at the University of Vermont, beating the school’s 4-year-old record by 20 seconds. She also was one second away from breaking a school mark in the 1,000 during the 50th Dartmouth Relays on Saturday afternoon at Dartmouth College’s Leverone Field House.

“I’ve lived with (autism) my whole life,” Davis said, sitting at the kitchen table of her White River Junction home on Thursday morning. “It’s made me really happy. It’s just who I am. … I’m just proud of it.”

Davis doesn’t know what she loves about running, just that she does. Like her autism, Davis has never known anything different.

What she has done, perhaps without realizing, is inspire the people around her.

“To ever think that she would be competing at this level with what she has to deal with has absolutely, incredibly exceeded any of the expectations we ever had,” said Ken Davis, Bethany’s father, on Thursday. “We were just thrilled when running first came up for the social interaction — she can be part of a team. Never in a million years (did we think) here she would be, a high school freshman with autism and epilepsy, breaking records and doing what she’s doing.”

Davis’ love for running was solidified in tandem with her connection to Dartmouth College sprinter Kayla Gilding, a friendship that started with a chance meeting and a tap on the shoulder.

Gilding, a senior this year for the Big Green, was in line for the bathroom in between events during the collegiate leg of the Relays two years ago, dressed up in her Big Green athletic gear. The South Burlington High graduate remembers feeling a tap and turning around. The middle-schooler staring back at her was wide eyed.

“Do you run for Dartmouth?” Davis asked.

“I do,” Gilding said.

“Can I have a high-five?”

“Sure.”

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Over the next three years, a few email exchanges turned into Davis rooting Gilding on at Dartmouth’s home meets. Next were meals at the Davis home, a visit to the Gilding home in northern Vermont, the exchange of Christmas gifts over the holidays, Gilding giving Davis hugs after her races.

“They’ve kind of adopted me as a second family while I’m here at school,” Gilding said.

Davis also has become a recognizable face around Dartmouth’s women’s track and field team, and she’s something of a little sister to Gilding. Over the years, Davis has become one of the team’s most recognizable fans.

“She’s got a great attitude, a great attitude. She’s the type of person a coach would want,” Dartmouth women’s track and field head coach Sandy Ford-Centonze said. “She may not be at the top, but it doesn’t matter. She wants to learn.”

Adding Gilding: “I kid you not: She knows every single time I’ve ever run since I was, like, 15. She knows when I did it, what I ran. Honestly, she probably knows the (weather) conditions of the day.”

In Gilding, Davis found a mentor — someone doing the sport she loves at a high level — and a friend to share it with. In Davis, Gilding found a calling, solidifying in her mind exactly what she wanted to do with her professional life.

Gilding enrolled at Dartmouth thinking of becoming a veterinarian. After meeting Davis, Gilding — who also lives with epilepsy — now wants to study clinical psychology and work specifically with children. She is waiting to hear back from graduate schools.

“Seeing the grace and pride she has when it comes to talking about her autism is really inspiring,” Gilding said of Davis. “It’s been a great way for me to learn about it, as well, instead of just reading a textbook. Seeing it as a lived experience is so powerful, and not everyone gets to get that as a student.”

Ken Davis remembers hearing his daughter’s diagnosis and wondering what her future would be like. Bethany had always been different; the diagnosis came with a bit of relief, he said. At first, running was a way to keep her social. Over time, as she started to fall in love with the sport, it evolved into something so much more.

“She was quirky from early on,” Ken Davis said on Thursday. “Of course, you have a sense of, ‘How is this going to affect her? What are the challenges going to be for her?’ But I never had the sense of how this might limit her life. From a young age you could tell she was really different, really bright, really sensitive.”

That love for track has shown in her first varsity season. One of Hartford High track and field head coach Mike Perry’s first interactions with Davis was a trip to the indoor New England Championships in 2017. Davis was already training as a middle-schooler with Hartford’s varsity team. She wanted to cheer on some of her future teammates.

Davis is home-schooled in White River Junction and attends Hartford practices during the afternoon. She runs for the Upper Valley Hawks, the Special Olympics team in Hanover and joined the Hartford cross country team in September before coming out for Perry’s indoor squad this winter. It didn’t take long to figure out just how strong and talented Davis was.

“I had no idea what she was dealing with,” Perry said.

Training Davis can be a bit of a challenge. Her arms tend to stiffen up when she runs, forcing her to concentrate on her body movement rather than her ever-strategic pace. Her nerves are at their worst at the beginning of races, putting the Hartford freshman almost always in the back of the pack; distance races allow her time to catch up.

But Perry said he hasn’t lightened her workouts in any way.

“If anything, I may ask a little bit more from her because I see that little bit more in her,” Perry said. “She responds really well to our workouts.”

It’s the perfect time for Davis to join the Hurricanes, a young squad that made a surprise runner-up finish at the VPA Division II indoor state meet last winter. A talented distance runner — with a passion for running, at that — might be just what the doctor ordered for the Canes.

“We’ve got a good girls team this year. … All the girls know how important Bethany is,” Perry said. “If we’re going to make a run, she’s going to be needed a lot.”

In some ways, Ken Davis said, his daughter’s autism is one of her biggest strengths. Autistic people are rule-driven, he said. Whether being told to do a workout, to train a certain way, to fix a part of her stride, Davis has the kind of laser focus needed to keep working until the job is done.

“As a parent, for us, she shows the world that with great tenacity and hard work, you can overcome huge disadvantages,” Ken Davis said.

That focus was on display on Saturday. Davis spent several minutes getting herself loose, trying to keep from tensing up or getting too excited.

Once the race started, Davis quickly fell to the back of the pack before meticulously moving her way up. She finished the race in 3:38.84, in 68th place overall. She collapsed next to the finish line, trying to catch her breath.

Ford-Centonze, the Dartmouth coach, greeted Davis first, offering a few words of encouragement. Next came Perry, who told Davis her time and how close she was to setting her second school record in a week. Then came Gilding, arms stretched out for a hug.

“I think it’d be really easy for people to say, ‘Wow, what an impact you’ve had on Bethany. She uses you as such a hero and a role model,’ ” Gilding said. “I think that’s true. But I would also say that my relationship with her has been one of the most important parts and most memorable parts of my Dartmouth experience.

“She really is just sunshine.”

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.




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