West Torrance High School's cross country's fastest runners help support autistic teammate

The fastest runners win the race. But sometimes it's the ones who trail the pack, who steal our hearts.

Freshman Max Ataka is a special needs freshman who had never played sports before, and never had many friends.

He joined West Torrance High's Cross Country's team this year...and kept coming in last place.

"He gets distracted easily. And that's it. He just...spaces off and he's gone," says coach Jason Druten.

And Max frequently gets lost.

"One night we got back at 11 o'clock from a race. All of a sudden, Max disappeared. No one could find him, we had to call Torrance PD," said Druten.

Max's parents feared they wouldn't see their kid cross the finish line at the first race.

But Max did finish, and he wasn't alone.

"I saw Max running with another athlete...and I became very confused," said Max's mom, Midori Ataka. 

A senior varsity boy swooped back to find Max after he finished his own race.

The boys had been looping back to run with Max for months.

"He's the spirit of the team," said one of Max's running partners, Aaron Nieraeth.

The runners didn't know it, but the strategy made them even stronger.

They kept winning races, and grabbing hearts along the way.

"It kept happening. Apparently, it's been happening since June. And coach never told me...that there was a running buddy," said Midori Ataka, through tears.

It was the kids' own idea.

"The adults... we couldn't figure it out. We had the administration, the school district, and all of a sudden, my cross country kids said, 'Coach, we got him, don't worry. We'll take care of him,' said Druten.

"They're really really good. They're really really welcoming," said Max Ataka.

The runners are competing hard to win a state championship, but winning for them has been redefined.

It now doesn't only mean coming in first place.

West High School competes to hold their top spot in the division this Saturday. They'll compete in the state championship in November.

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