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Samantha Rodriguez: Logging Miles & Leading the Way

To many, running is a solitary sport. One person, one route, one goal. But for Samantha Rodriguez, running has always been more than that. It’s been a way to connect, form a community, and create opportunities for those around her.

The Special Olympics Florida athlete first started seriously running at the age of 13 after witnessing her mom, Karina Rodriguez, complete the New York City Marathon in 2016. As Samantha watched her mother complete 26.2 grueling miles, cross the finish line, and receive a medal, she had one thought: she wanted to do that too. Luckily, she had the perfect teacher in her mom, who already understood the physical and mental health benefits of running.

Raising a child with an intellectual disability can pose a unique set of challenges, but factor in Samantha’s younger sister and being a single mom and Karina was looking for something to help her cope.

Two women wearing matching green shirts that say "Arbor School Achievers" are posing for a photo outside.
Karina (right) introduced Samantha to running to help with her mental health and the duo has never looked back.

“The mental health benefits were huge for me,” explains Karina. “I wanted to do something for myself. Running takes me out of being stressed, and I was able to meet people along the way, making friends.”

She felt strongly that her oldest daughter would benefit in a similar way, specifically in helping alleviate some of the symptoms of anxiety Samantha deals with on a daily basis. But more than anything else, running brought valuable lessons and joy into Samantha’s life.

“When I run, I feel happy,” says Samantha. “I’ve learned to work hard.”

No one will argue that training for a marathon is anything other than hard work. With Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off blasting in her ears, Samantha trains upwards of 5 months ahead of each race, running multiple days a week, and logging dozens of miles a week.

But she hasn’t done it alone. Local running clubs have welcomed Samantha with open arms, including her and helping her train, which is her favorite part of the sport.

“My favorite race was the New York City Marathon [in 2021] because I liked the crowds and running with my mom,” said Samantha.

The feeling is mutual.

Two women stand at the finish line of a marathon, showing off their medals.
Samantha (left) and her mom, Karina, have trained for and run multiple marathons together.

“When we finished that race, she gave me a hug, which was a real hug. I waited so many years to get that special hug,” shares Karina, with emotion evident in her voice. “I didn’t think I would ever be able to experience that because when she was first diagnosed, they [the doctors] didn’t give me any hope for her.”

Just like that: a solitary sport turned into so much more for Samantha, bringing her closer to her mom and to her community. But she’s not done yet: she’s going to expand the inclusive running community one step (and mile at a time).

This year marked the first year of the Arbor School Achievers Running Club: a running club created by Samantha to serve her classmates at the Arbor School of Central Florida.

With the support of Karina and Arbor School teacher Michael O’Shaughnessy, a marathon runner himself, 10 students with intellectual disabilities have come together with one goal in mind: crossing the finish line at the OUC Orlando 5K race on December 7.

The photo shows 10 individuals wearing matching green shirts that say "Arbor School Achievers". They are standing outside and smiling for a photo.
The Arbor School Achievers Running Club was started by Samantha Rodriguez and aims to build confidence in her peers.

“A lot of friends wanted to join me in running and I wanted to help them train,” says Samantha. “I wanted them to feel proud of themselves.”

It’s her mom who couldn’t be prouder.

“She’s actually thinking of others. She wants to help others experience the same benefits she’s experienced. She wants them to be included and reach a milestone like she has been. That’s being a leader,” said Karina.

Meeting twice a week, the Arbor School Achievers start with stretches and proper nutrition and hydration before starting that day’s mileage. While many still do a combination of walking and running during their training sessions, the impact has been noticeable. Friendships are forming, connections are increasing, and confidence is growing.

“I came into this prepared to share my distance running experiences with the students and encourage them,” said O’Shaughnessy. “But we’re doing it together!”

The official running club will take a short break during summer vacation, but the work won’t stop.

“At our Arbor School Summer Camp, we can continue our running program for overall fitness and encourage the students to swim and ride bikes for strength and conditioning,” explains O’Shaughnessy. “When school starts August 2, we will be ready to start back up.”

The 26.2 miles of a marathon, or even the 3.2 miles of a 5k, may seem solitary. But as Samantha Rodriguez has learned, each pounding of a shoe on the pavement is merely the echo of the entire community cheering her on.

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