AUSTIN, Texas — For every step Kayleigh Williamson takes, she touches far more than her treadmill.
On a warm winter day in December, she's training in her South Austin garage for something far bigger than a race.
Kayleigh is an endurance athlete, who despite having completed 14 half marathons, was once written off.
"The moment she was born, I was told everything she couldn't do," her mom, Sandy Williamson, said.
Sandy recalled the exact moment 31 years ago when she got the diagnosis.
"I was a junior in college. I worked as a waitress the weekend before she was born, went to classes the day before," she said. "Did not know, not even when she was born, it was actually the next morning, they came in and said, 'Well, we think there's a slight problem.' The doctor said, 'We think she's slightly Down syndrome.'"
The obstacles and adversity for this family of two were just beginning.
"We lived on welfare and donation until I graduated the next year," Sandy said. "Her dad saw her once when she was born and never again, and that's his choice. In second grade, when the little girl walked up and the teacher stopped me and said, 'The little girl spit in your daughter's face, not because your daughter did anything but because she was different.'"
A few years later, the family started to face health problems.
"In 2008, Kayleigh was diagnosed with ITP – low blood platelets – and we didn't know why. Then she was diagnosed with hypothyroidism and then hyperthyroidism. She was 215 pounds, she had sleep apnea, she was pre-diabetic," Sandy said.
It was around that time that Kayleigh's grandmother – Sandy's mom – suffered her second major stroke.
She was diagnosed with vascular dementia and the possibility of Alzheimer's. The doctors recommended a lifestyle change to prolong her time.
"I remember coming home and looking in the mirror and thinking, 'You're a hypocrite. Look at the lifestyle you have your daughter in,'" Sandy said. "I know the rate of Alzheimer's in individuals with Down syndrome. There are some health crises that we're not going to have a choice and we're going to have to fight. But there are others that I don't have to open the door and invite it in."
So Sandy and Kayleigh began to take small steps.
"Through the running and Weight Watchers, I started seeing the pounds come off of her," Sandy said.
Each step was inspired by her grandma.
"My grandma always told me that, 'I am so proud of you,'" Kayleigh said.
Kayleigh Williamson and her grandma
Each step was accompanied by her mom.
"I don't want her to see me sitting on the sidelines saying, 'Go, go, go.' I want her to see me actively with her," Sandy said.
And each step was monitored by her trainer at Run Lab Austin.
"We just have to not take too many steps ahead of what she's been doing in the past," Shane Niksic said.
After a few rigorous months, Sandy began to see the hard work pay off.
Eventually, the steps turned into strolls. Then to struts. And then to sprints.
All told, Kayleigh's Graves' disease went into remission, her sleep apnea disappeared and she was no longer pre-diabetic.
"I just want to tell you that you changed my life," Kayleigh told her mom.
In 2017, Kayleigh became the first person with Down syndrome to finish the Ascension Seton Austin Half Marathon.
Kayleigh Williams running in competitions
She stepped up her game even more in 2022 and set out to finish the full 26.2-mile race.
Sandy knew that the journey wouldn't be easy, and said the seven hours allotted for the race might not be enough time.
"If we don't meet the cutoff time, I'm OK with that. We know what it is to be last in line and we know what it is to have the finish line shut down and picked up, but that's okay it's her dream," she said. "I will still have a jacket that I've made for her that says 'Marathon Finisher' on the back, and that's all she needs."
To help Kayleigh get to the finish, Sandy called upon two special guests.
Her former trainer, Shane, flew in from Colorado the day before the race to not only surprise her at packet pickup but to let her know he would be running in the race with her. This moment was the first time they'd seen each other in three years.
Later that day, Katie Field arrived in Austin.
"I'm just a big fangirl who happens to be able to run a marathon," she told KVUE in an interview months prior.
She also happens to have a very personal connection to Kayleigh's story.
"When she was the first woman with Down syndrome to finish the Austin Half Marathon in 2017, as a runner myself and a parent of someone with Down syndrome, all of my circles sent me the story. Somewhere along the way we connected through social media and have stayed in touch ever since," Katie said.
Katie, her 9-year-old daughter, Caroline, and the rest of the family had driven in from Atlanta to meet Kayleigh for the first time.
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Katie also let Kayleigh know she'd be running in the race alongside her.
"I want both of my daughters to meet Kayleigh and to meet Sandy and continue to learn about all they're doing for the community," Katie said.
The next morning, 5 a.m. on race day, it was that community that was now giving back to Kayleigh as she approached the start line.
"With Shane here, with William [Dyson] here, with Katie here, she's got plenty of people. The goal is to make her mad at me, and she runs that way. That's what we do," Sandy said. "The finish line, the only thing I can think of is her hair flicking in the wind and her dancing. But our philosophy is: walk it, crawl it, whatever you got to do, just get to the finish line."
When the countdown ended and Kayleigh set out to start her run, it was one more chance to inspire. With every step she took along the journey, she touched others.
"That's kind of become our platform," Sandy said.
"It's important messages for other individuals with Down syndrome to see that they can do hard things," Katie said.
Each step represented defying expectations and exceeding limitations.
"I think it's also really important for the general public to hear these things, to do a better job of embracing differently-abled people and to see their potential," Katie added.
"I know what it feels like to take what others think we can and cannot do [and let that] become the myths we believe about ourselves," Sandy said.
With each step, Kayleigh was inspired by what she's lost.
"My grandma always told me that, 'You're my sunshine,'" she said.
With each step, she was grateful for what she's gained.
"She gets really emotional when she knows that she's reaching other people," Shane said.
Kayleigh completed the marathon with a time of 6 hours, 43 minutes, 51 seconds. She became the first person with Down syndrome to complete the Austin Marathon.
"I'm so proud of you. You're a marathoner. You're a marathoner," Sandy exclaimed to Kayleigh, as tears rolled down their faces.
"My child has a legacy," Sandy said. "Every child has a legacy, but whether they get to live it or not, that's what I see with Kayleigh and that's what I see with this."
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