Park’s Saunders Runs With a Purpose
Cross country standout battles back after being diagnosed with GPA
By KYLE LUTZ
WHEELING — On the night of May 18, Wheeling Park’s Ronnie Saunders lined up at the starting line for the 3,200 at the West Virginia state track meet. The gun sounded and the runners took off in the final event of Day 1. As the lights shined down on the runners, it became clear that Saunders had it in his mind that he wanted to win, even though he wasn’t projected to get on the podium.
As the laps went by, Saunders’ teammates crowded the guard rail. And as the race progressed, the Wheeling Park faithful kept chanting his name louder and louder.
The bell rang to indicate the final lap where Saunders was behind the lead runner by six seconds. And as the Patriots fans kept chanting, he kept closing the gap and it was clear he was not going down without a fight.
In the end, he made up five and a half seconds, coming in second place in a time of 9:27.14.
While Saunders did not win the race, it was a victory in it of itself, especially after all that Saunders had gone through just months prior.
When it comes to running, there’s one thing that Wheeling Park’s Ronnie Saunders loves to do: proving people wrong. And he has done so on some of the biggest stages.
It just so happens he has been proving people wrong every day for a little more than year now as he continues to fight his battle with Granulomatosis with Polyangiitis (GPA) when he was diagnosed on July 31, 2017.
“To be back on the big stage was the best part,” Saunders said. “I know my team was going to support me and that’s always the best part. When the team is right there on the guard rail, cheering me on. And I’m going for the win. The 2 mile is my personal favorite.. To be able to run it that fast again after what I went through. Three weeks before it being in the hospital, having the surgery, chemotherapy treatment, it just felt incredible.”
Becoming a Household Name
The 2016 cross country season was one to remember for not only Saunders, but Wheeling Park coach Jacob Galik. The Wheeling Park boys team qualified for the state meet at Cabell Midland High School and Galik remembers it clearly.
“So we’re at the state meet and you got the guys from Cabell, Morgantown, and you got all these great runners and the gun goes off,” Galik said. “Five guys sprint to the lead and one of those five guys was Ronnie. Never ran there a day before in his life. I can vividly remember standing there. The state meet course starts out literally about 250-300 meters of a dead sprint. It starts out 30 boxes wide and compresses to 8 feet.
“Ronnie takes off like a shot. And I thought ‘Alright. He’s going to settle in.’ And that just never happened. He just kept going. I vividly remember multiple times, he went out too fast. At the mile mark, he looked fabulous.”
And that’s how the rest of the race went for Saunders as he crossed the finish line in third in a time of 16:37.23. And thus, people wanted to know who this sophomore from Wheeling Park High School was.
“That just came out of nowhere,” Saunders said. “I’ve been working hard all season that year and when it finally came to the state meet, it was real hot. And I just handled the heat better than anybody else. After that, I knew I was something special and I put in the work over the winter.”
Saunders also had a successful track campaign his sophomore year. He qualified in the 3200, and again, at the state meet, he wasn’t projected to get on the podium.
Again, it was Saunders out there turning heads as he was in the lead during the sixth lap. He finished fourth clocking in at 9:37.29.
“The best part about that, I was average all season,” Saunders said. “But as soon as I made it to the state meet, I wasn’t projected in the top six and I proved them wrong. That’s what I love the most. Proving people wrong and showing them that I can do what some can’t.
“It’s just something that hits me in the big meets. I just get the ultimate motivations. I can’t feel anything, I’m just thinking, I need to win this race, I need to place high. It just comes.”
The Journey Back to the Top
Going into his junior year, Saunders had big expectations in mind: he was thinking gold.
During a vacation with his father, Walt, though, he noticed his knee was bothering him.
When he got back to Wheeling, he informed Galik that his ankle was bothering him before a workout. Saunders finished it, but Galik knew he wasn’t himself.
At first, it was believed in was just a running injury. Saunders visited Rapid Care and it was suspected he had the symptoms of an adductor strain, where they referred him to physical therapy.
Saunders scheduled to go back to therapy the following week, but he had then developed what doctors had thought was STREP.
Unfortunately, the news got worse. A week later, Saunders returned to therapy and saw Justin Kiger, where he explained that something else was going on.
Saunders blood tests came back abnormal and he was developing a rash around his joints that were beginning to swell.
Saunders was in and out of the hospital for most of June and July. At the time, his lungs, kidneys, respiratory area and joints were taking the biggest hits.
“They were one or two weeks from taking my kidney out,” Saunders said. “I was wheelchair bound. They found the diagnosis and a kidney biopsy. They put me on steroids, IV fluids, chemo treatments and I just fought from there.”
Saunders ran two races his junior year of cross country.
“He never gave up,” Galik said. “He obviously didn’t come to practice for a while. Eventually he did and the steroids made him gain a bunch of weight. But he never ever quit. Ever. He never ever quit.
“He ran a race at Pickerington, he was in the 24s, but he finished. Afterwards, he never stopped believing in himself.
“His family was completely supportive. His mom, his dad, his sisters, and his step parents, everybody. Everybody was behind him and he never gave up. Obviously his cross country season wasn’t what he wanted it to be. But I couldn’t be prouder of him.”
During the year, Saunders’ absence from the course was recognized and when the news was told, there was a moment that Galik will remember for the rest of his life.
“Ward Ries of Preston. Everyone wanted to know what happened to Ronnie because everyone saw what he did his sophomore year. This kid came out of nowhere and finished third in the state then he was just gone. I vividly remember Ward coming up to me at Preston with tears in his eyes and said, ‘I’m going to pray for him.’ Just a great kid,” Galik said.
Saunders did not lose focus to get back to prime form in the winter months heading into track season. While he was pushing to put in miles for Galik, he had also had to undergo laryngoscopy/bronchoscopy with balloon dilation because the disease was actively flaring in his throat. It was also known that Saunders had been running with the windpipe the size of an infant. After surgery, he was scheduled for another infusion of his Rituxan with the addition of a form of chemo called Cytoxan.
Saunders also underwent two more scope surgeries to stretch his throat. He also had steroid injections, and one additional chemo treatment.
“I’m not going to lie, I can say it now… I never thought he’d be himself again,” Galik said. “Then you could kind of see it coming back. A little bit. Track got started. I was the distance coach. You could see. He’s getting fast. His first meet was in the upper 10s in the 3200. But he still wasn’t happy with it. He just kept at it. Every time I talked to him, he said ‘I’m going to win states.’ He just kept working and all the while, he was still going to Children’s Hospital to get his infusions to make sure his disease doesn’t come back.”
Saunders underwent his third balloon procedure, chemo and Rituxin infusion the Friday before the West Virginia Class AAA regional meet. Six days later, he was on the track competing in the 3200. While he placed fourth, he did not get an automatic bid to the state meet. The top three runners from each region get an automatic bid followed by the four next fastest times.
“I can vividly remember coming home calling everyone I knew all over the state to try and find out what the best fourth place time was to figure out if Ronnie was going to state,” Galik said. “That feeling of doubt was palpable. I knew it was all the medicine and he just gotten it. And I thought the disease was going to get him again. And it literally broke my heart. Because I knew he was better than that.”
Eventually, Saunders got the news he qualified to the state meet. And the rest is history. With his second-place finish on the biggest stage in West Virginia, it just became another chapter in his motivating story.
“The relationships and memories made within his cross country and track seasons are a big part of his heart,” Saunders’ mother, Lori McLaughlin, said. “The coaches and athletes at Wheeling Park High School have surrounded and supported him like his own family. I’ll never forget when Coach Galik and members of his cross country team drove all the way to Pittsburgh when he was hospitalized. That was an incredibly touching and emotional moment for us. There’s a special bond that we will be forever grateful for. It’s part of what keeps him so strong.”
Yet with all his hard work, you should not be surprised that he still thinks he can have better results this season. And he has backed that up as Saunders has won a pair of invitationals in as many outings. He started off his senior year with a victory at the Wheeling Park Classic on Aug. 25, followed by a win at the St. Marys Medical Center XC Festival in Ona on Saturday.
“My expectations for myself, is to be top 3 in the state, if not winning it,” Saunders said. “For the team, we have a really strong team this year. We have a lot of depth and a lot of strong guys. I think we can win OVACs, I think we can win regionals and I think we can hit the podium.”
While Saunders’ run at Wheeling Park is in its winding days, his story will forever be ingrained in not only Wheeling Park, but in the entire state of West Virginia.
“The only thing I can say is to keep persevering. You got to persevere and you got to let the medicine and the doctors do their work. It will work,” Saunders said.
“He’s still not satisfied,” Galik added. “What happened to him made him know what it’s like to not be able to run like he can. He does not take it for granted. He works so hard. Every day. I don’t have to worry about Ronnie running ever. The only thing I have to worry about Ronnie doing wrong is running too fast. The only thing we fight about is that he wants to run his mileage fast.
“He is an inspiration. He makes me want to be a better coach. I know the guys have to look at him and think, ‘How can I quit? How can I not work to my hardest when he never, ever gave up?”
∫ Granulomatosis with Polyangiitis has fewer than 200,000 cases per year. It is treatable by medical professionals, but can be lifelong.
∫ Saunders will continue infusion treatments every six months, indefinitely, as GPA is a life-threatening disease. While it’s under control now, only Saunders will know when it’s in full flare, so the timelines of treatments may be manipulated.
∫ Saunders has a huge desire to help others diagnosed with GPA and will continue to win with Vasculitis until they find a cure. During his first surgery last February, he gave his pulmonary doctor permission to utilize remains from his lung area to assist with research.