Saturday’s heavy rains delayed events but did not dampen the dedicated spirits of athletes such as Sam McCullough who participated in the 22nd annual First Security Conway Kids Triathlon.

Hundreds of participants gathered in Conway on Saturday, despite the stormy forecast, to take part in the annual competition, which was held at the Hendrix College Wellness and Athletics Center.

Of the highly-attended event, 30 athletes represented Community Connections.

Community Connections provides an adapted division and has buddies onsite to allow children with intellectual and developmental disabilities an opportunity to compete in the annual event.

“This is the most inspirational event to see in person,” Community Connections Executive Director Courtney Leach said. “We have a couple of athletes who have spent time in the hospital this year and many others who would never have dreamed of the opportunity to participate in a triathlon. To see children who already have challenges due to an intellectual or developmental disability put in the work and cross the finish line is priceless.”

For young Sam McCullough and his mother, Jessica, the program has opened possibilities for the 9-year-old that his family thought would likely never happen again.

Sam has always enjoyed soccer. However, the North Little Rock boy was recently diagnosed with hereditary spastic paraplegia. As the disorder continues to run its course, the muscles in Sam’s legs will weaken drastically.

“He’ll lose the use of his legs over time,” Jessica said.

Following a tip from one of Sam’s therapists with Pediatrics Plus, the McCulloughs are now able to watch the 9-year-old thrive. And on Saturday, he participated in his first-ever triathlon.

“With his diagnosis, we weren’t really able to do competitive sports,” Sam’s mother told the Log Cabin Democrat. “[This program] makes him where he’s able to get out and [be active]. He’s had a blast getting to know these kids and just getting to participate.”

Sam was prepared to take on the triathlon in full force Saturday morning and brought along an adult-sized tricycle to compete with.

His family said he was never able to ride a bike “due to his balance issues” until this year.

Sam started to fall down and endured a concussion last year. Following a series of falls and conversations with the young boy’s pediatrician, Jessica brought Sam to a neurologist. The family received the results of Sam’s genetic testing a few months ago and learned he had hereditary spastic paraplegia, which has symptoms that mimic those associated with Parkinson’s disease.

Sam did not make his diagnosis apparent to those watching his swim across the Hendrix pool on Saturday as he swam across the 50-yard course with a smile on his face.

“He’s a happy-go-lucky kid,” Jessica said of her son.

Eight-year-old Presley Tolliver of North Little Rock also participated in the Conway Kids Triathlon Adapted Division for the first time Saturday.

The young girl’s mother cried tears of joy as she looked at her two daughters, 8-year-old Presley and 9-year-old Payton, who both participated in the annual competition.

Payton has always been athletically inclined, the girls’ mother, Robin, told the Log Cabin. While young Presley does not let having Down syndrome prevent her from mastering her piano skills or from excelling at reading, she has never had the opportunity to compete in events as her sister does.

Watching her 8-year-old compete Saturday “means a lot.”

The girls’ mother also jumped into the pool at Hendrix to see her daughter complete the adapted swim challenge.

Community Connections staff said they look forward to helping young athletes compete each year.

“There is no limit to what these kids can do with a little adaptation, encouragement and belief,” Leach said.

Staff writer Marisa Hicks can be reached at mhicks@thecabin.net.