“This is John. He just ran the Boston Marathon.”
That’s how Vanessa Bieker, mother of John Almeda and founder of Fly Brave, prefers to introduce her son. “Yes, John has nonverbal autism, but that’s not all that he is. John is first and foremost a runner, a professional athlete. When people are trying to engage him in conversation, [I say] ‘He has nonverbal autism’, but he is first and foremost a person,” she explains.
Born and raised in Sacramento, John is 25 years old. You may have seen him in Sacramento news and media earlier this year when he finished the Boston Marathon in three hours and 52 minutes. His accomplishment was a beacon of hope for many in our community facing the stigma and difficulties related to developmental disabilities.
But John began inspiring people to overcome challenging circumstances long before he crossed the finish line in Boston, starting with his mom, Vanessa.
“I was a young mom, I had John when I was 20 years old and when he was diagnosed I was 22. We grew up together… I had all of these bills and when you receive the diagnosis then you figure out, what can I get rid of? I can get rid of cable so I can afford more speech therapy… but I was so young, I had all this energy that I said ‘We’re going to become explorers and we’re going to make sure that you have the best life possible’.”
That was just the beginning of John and Vanessa’s journey together. In 2015, John was facing the challenges of delayed puberty when he discovered his talent for running. Vanessa and John began going for long walks in the evening to try and expend some of his energy, and one day they stumbled upon an open track.
John took off running, and he hasn’t looked back since. Vanessa saw right away that John had a talent and a passion for the sport, and signed him up for Special Olympics, where he joined the Sacramento County Track and Field Team.
“It gave him the fundamentals and the foundation of running in front of crowds and running with the team…and then he started dreaming about Boston,” shared Vanessa.
John would watch the Boston Marathon on the news and he followed all of the media coverage on YouTube. He wanted to go to the Boston Marathon, and nothing was going to stop him. Armed with the confidence and support he had gained from his participation in the community, he set his sights on the Boston finish line.
Soon enough, everyone could see the difference in John, giving him and Vanessa confirmation that they were onto something important.
“It’s given him this confidence and this boost and he’s actually verbalizing more words and taking more initiative… We have family that come from out of town every couple of years. When they came to visit this last time, they were amazed. ‘Did you see what John’s doing? Did you see this? Look what John’s doing!’”
But to get to Boston, Vanessa and John knew they had a big hurdle to overcome together. First, he had to qualify to be able to compete in the race.
“Go John-John, Go!”
It was 6 miles into the California International Marathon (CIM), a qualifying race for the Boston Marathon, and John’s supporters were cheering him on from the sidelines. As he ran the course, he knew completing this challenge would take him one step closer to his dream of several years – competing in the prestigious Boston Marathon.
But from the sidelines, John’s supporters began to notice something was wrong. John was limping as he ran and his pace was slowing down. Although they attempted to convince John to stop and get checked out, he refused. He knew finishing this race was going to help him achieve one of his biggest dreams.
John ran another 20 miles, crossing the finish line four hours and 27 minutes after he started. Still, he did not stop, going all the way up to the person handing out medals to collect his prize.
“When we went to the ER, he had a broken ankle. So he ran an entire marathon on a broken ankle and was so proud of his metal and never stopped smiling,” said Vanessa.
But John’s determination even lead him to return to the CIM a second time in 2018. He knew that once his ankle healed, he was capable of getting a better time seat for the Boston Marathon. And this time, his determination to succeed inspired his mom to join him.
“I registered to run a marathon because John inspired me to… I wanted to walk into that mindset of what is it like to run a marathon? How does my son do this?” explained Vanessa.
John was also Vanessa’s biggest motivator during the run. When Vanessa experienced her own ankle injury during the CIM at mile 20, she nearly gave up at the 22 mile mark, telling John “Alright, take me to the car. I have finished 22 miles. This is it.”
John (who had already finished the race) refused to let her quit.
“He ran me into the finish and grabbed my metal and put my metal on me and have me the biggest hug. He ran the marathon, took a shower, went and got coffee and donuts, met me at mile 22 and took me all the way in. And so I was last… but I crossed and I got my metal thanks to John,” Vanessa told UCP as she and John smiled at each other, sharing in a moment of pride.
From there, John headed to the Boston Marathon, where he proved to the world that a developmental disability doesn’t have to hold you back from your dreams. By pursuing his goals and crossing the finish line, John has inspired many other people affected by autism.
“Jhttps://ucpsacto.org/resourcesohn receives so many fan letters from families saying, ‘My child w/helpful-info/taking-the-first-step/as just diagnosed’, or “My son is six and he’s nonverbal and he’s showing a passion for running’… a diagnosis on paper doesn’t mean that you’re not able to accomplish your dreams,” said Vanessa.
John and Vanessa’s impact hasn’t stopped there. Motivated by their own experiences trying to find recreational and employment programs for young adults with developmental disabilities, Vanessa founded the Fly Brave Foundation.
The Fly Brave Foundation’s mission is to create an employment training program for adults with developmental disabilities that have aged out of the school system, focusing on three essential building blocks; vocational training, social skills, and living a healthy lifestyle.
John is involved in everything at Fly Brave, continuing to inspire others with autism to pursue their dreams.
Now serving and connecting 250 families, “What we do is a client comes to us with what their career aspirations are and we build a program around that,” Vanessa explained.
“We just want people to see the ability because a diagnosis is just that. It’s on paper. These individuals are brilliant and they’re geniuses and they really can teach us.”
Turning to look at John, Vanessa asked “You’re 25 and you’re living your best life, right?”
“Yes!” John agreed enthusiastically, nodding his head with a big grin.