At first sight, Nate Petersen may seem like a typical Davis kid who grew up playing AYSO soccer, experiencing those first terrifying steps in the hallways of a junior high school and participating in numerous extracurricular activities in high school.
And while many of these regular childhood adventures come easy for most Davis kids, Nate also has had to deal with one of the most demanding and perplexing tasks along the way: trying to be a typical kid while juggling a broad diagnosis of global developmental delays in speech and motor skills and a lower IQ.
His mother, well-known retired pediatrician Pam Petersen, saw the earliest signs of trouble during her pregnancy when Nate completely stopped growing. He was born two weeks earlier than expected in April 1994, weighing in at a mere five pounds. But despite his low birth weight, Nate was a very vigorous baby who aways seemed to know exactly when to smile.
Looking back, his mother recalls the initial signs that something was wrong.
“When he was supposed to be walking,” she said, “it didn’t happen. He didn’t show any desire to do it. He would be happy to just sit, and that’s when we started having questions.”
According to a study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 13.7 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 17 are affected by a developmental disorder.
But the Petersen family wasn’t going to let Nate’s diagnosis control his life. They soon had him in school and participating in activities and made sure he had many social engagements with other children.
Over the years, the community of Davis has provided more and more activities to kids and adults who have mental or physical disabilities and Nate has taken advantage of many of them, particularly when it comes to the sports provided by Special Olympics and Team Davis.
Nate’s family actually was hesitant at first to take him to a Special Olympics basketball practice, fearing how he would react since he didn’t necessarily know about his own developmental delays.
That first time at basketball practice, Pam Petersen said, “We wondered if he would freeze and never want to go back. (But) he just went in there and started interacting with the others. It was like he had found his home.”
Still, the signs are there that Nate sees himself as just like any other teenager. Many times, for example, he has mentioned his college plans. But unfortunately, his parents said, he won’t be able to go to college.
And after all these years, they’re still not sure how Nate sees himself.
“After knowing and living with him for 19 years, we still don’t know,” his mom laughed.
They don’t really know how he sees the world, either, but one thing they do know: He is very happy.
Nate frequently smiles, laughs and runs around in excitement. He also enjoys time around people and loves making lists. He can tell you all about professional sports, what teams are currently hot and what athletic figures are most popular. His parents hope one day he can get a job at the ARC gym on the UC Davis campus, where he could bring his love of sports and general enthusiasm to the job every day.
But before that, he probably will attend an adult school to pick up real-world job skills.
That will be a major adjustment for him, though, since he has been enrolled in the full-inclusion program for special-needs students at Davis High School the past few years.
Prior to arriving at Davis High, he was at Valley Oak Elementary School and Holmes Junior High School, in classrooms specifically for those who need extra help. As fantastic as those classes were, his parents wanted to see him get more interaction with other kids. At Davis High, he has participated in mainstream classes with the help of a peer aide and an adult aide, taking ceramics, foods and design classes. It’s in those classes that he’s learned social skills from the students around him.
Davis High is, of course, also known for Division 1 athletics, something the Petersen family is very familiar with.
Nate’s older brothers, twins Drew and Matt, were phenoms in track and cross country, leading Davis High to section championships between 2005 and 2008. And Nate was there every step of the way.
He would cheer, hug and chant for the runners at every track meet, always hoping that he, too, could follow in their footsteps.
His parents never thought Nate would be able to participate in high school sports, however. For one thing, they never thought he’d make the cut. Fortunately, track and cross country are two of four Davis sports that are open to all student-athletes.
And since the Petersen family was so involved in those sports, they asked head coaches Spencer Elliott and Bill Gregg if Nate could participate.
“We knew the coaches well enough that we could ask them and talk to them about Nate being on the team,” Pam Petersen said. “I don’t know if it was because the coaches thought, ‘Well it’s Pam and Mick asking, so we better say yes.’ I hope that’s not the case.”
In his 16-year career at Davis High, Gregg had coached other students with disabilities and seen for himself that they could run on their own and succeed. He was more than willing to allow Nate a spot on the team, he said.
“We had this kind of experience before,” Gregg explained, “and also, because I know his older brothers, mother and father so well … it was easy to make it work.”
There were still major concerns in the Petersen family.
When Nate became eligible to play sports for Davis High as a freshman, his brothers had just graduated and wouldn’t be around to help. And since cross country athletes generally must run off campus — usually unsupervised on the North Davis greenbelt — Nate’s parents were apprehensive.
That first year, Pam and Mick Petersen arranged for one of their older sons’ friends to accompany Nate during those practices and races.
Now, however, Nate can run the greenbelt alone. He throws on his Blue Devil shorts, a Sacramento Kings T-shirt, his high knee socks and a white headband to match, and he is ready to go.
And his older brothers’ fear that Nate would think he had to live up to the Petersen twins’ legacy was short-lived.
“I don’t think that he really knows what Matt and I did in our running careers. So, I am not sure if he grasps the idea that he is not the top guy,” said his brother Drew, who now helps coach the Davis High track and cross country teams.
Either way, everyone involved in cross country and track has noticed that Nate brings something special to the team. He arrives 15 minutes earlier than the mandatory 3:50 p.m. practices, cheers on his teammates at every race, and when he is cheered for, he smiles and runs faster.
He’s made many friends during his four years on the team and is particularly close to varsity stand-out Paul Mohr.
“Paul would say that he is Nate’s friend, too,” Pam Petersen said. “At first, (the friendship) started just because Paul is a nice guy and he has a keen sense of when Nate needs help, but now it has grown into something really special for the both of them.”
Gregg has noticed that during Nate’s running career he has developed friendships with a lot of athletes.
“That’s one of the great things about having Nate on the team. … It shows us coaches that the athletes in cross country and track are really special, and can make him feel welcome,” Gregg said.
And while Pam Petersen notices that Nate feels at home when he is at events like the Special Olympics, she thinks that being in a high school sport has been immensely valuable for him, too, and not just because of the physical activity.
“He learns how to behave from others,” she explained. “Ever since he started, he now knows to be quiet when the coach talks and how to talk to peers and coaches.”
His brother and coach, Drew, also talks about how beneficial track has been for Nate.
“I think being on the team is super-helpful since he is with his peer groups and friends,” Drew Petersen said.
Unlike at school or with the Special Olympics, he explained, “there is not an aide out there. And he loves being out there running.”
Physical fitness is good for anyone, but it is especially important for people with disabilities, because it helps build confidence by allowing them to prove to themselves that not only can they can do it, they can improve over time.
When he started cross country, Nate was able to run about a mile. But as the weeks went by, he was able to run in the frosh/soph 2-mile cross country race and over time, dropped his best time from over 22 minutes to 18 minutes flat.
“It is incredible and remarkable,” Gregg said of Nate’s improvement.
“This spring (in track),” Gregg said, “he is running faster than ever before. We look back at last fall (when) we set a goal for him to run a full 5,000 meters (3.1 miles) at (Mt. San Antonio College) and he did it.”
The annual trip to the Mt. Sac competition includes a visit to Disneyland, something Nate had done every year since he was a freshman. But this year, he was able to compete in the race with his teammates for the first time, grinning ear-to-ear the whole way.
It was just one of many firsts this year. He also crossed the finish line at the Lagoon Valley Classic ahead of another athlete and was named “Most Inspirational” cross country runner, alongside his buddy Mohr. He even earned a letter on his jacket for his improvements and dedication.
“He doesn’t know it, but he inspires us in a unique way,” Gregg said. “And he teaches us many lessons about serving everyone no matter what skill. I think that Nate is one of the most key players on this team, even though he has no idea.”
— Maggie McManis is a student at Da Vinci Charter Academy.