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Little sister ‘Mighty Mia’ an inspiration for former Absegami star athlete Ford Palmer

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher On May 6, 1954, in Oxford, England, Roger Bannister accomplished something that put him in the record books for eternity and made his name famous among sports fans — he became the world’s first 4-minute miler. In those days, posting a time of 3:59.4 was thought to be impossible. Since then, many have broken four minutes in the mile, but it remains the ultimate goal of any miler. Former Absegami football and track star Ford Palmer, now a 24-year-old professional runner, broke the 4-minute mark in February by winning the Boston University Valentine Invite. He posted a time of 3:56.79 at the indoor race, and now has his eye on 3:52 as he trains for a possible berth on the U.S. Olympic team. Yet, for all his accomplishments, Ford may not even be the most popular track athlete in his own family. But, in this particular case, he’s happy to take a back seat to 11-year-old sister Mia. “Mighty Mia” — as she is known in South Jersey — is one of the most popular Special Olympics stars on the area circuit. But Ford says he has no problem sharing the spotlight. “She shows up to my races with my dad or watches them on the computer and cheers me on like crazy,” Ford said. “It’s an awesome feeling. It pushes me to do better and get to another level to make her proud. I want to be a good role model to her.” Mia was born with a degree of cerebral palsy, and Ford said she rarely spoke until she was about 6 or 7 years old. That’s not the case anymore. Mia is one of the loudest kids at not only the Special Olympics events, but also the Upper Township Challenger League. She’s a huge supporter of all the other athletes, and during a Special Olympics track meet at Stockton University in April, she was pleading with runners to “stay focused!” and “finish strong!” as they came around the bend on their last laps. Mia’s father, Ford Palmer IV, said that when the family arrived at Stockton he thought Team Mighty Mia had swelled in size. Turns out the Stockton volunteers were wearing a T-shirt that was the exact same color the family had made up in support of Mia. Mia runs the 400 meters at a recent Special Olympics event at Stockton University. Like most 11-year-olds, Mia says she likes sports, pizza (it has to be plain), and her dogs. Mia runs the 400 meters at a recent Special Olympics event at Stockton University. Like most 11-year-olds, Mia says she likes sports, pizza (it has to be plain), and her dogs. “When I was in college they would travel to all my meets, and Mia is the loudest person you’ll meet, so I could hear her every time I was racing, telling me to run faster,” Ford said. “Growing up, my sisters (23-year-old twins Tiara and Sierra) may have a bad day, I may have a bad day, my dad may have a bad day, but Mia never had a bad day. She would always be in a good mood and keeping us happy.” These days, Ford spends a lot of his time training out west, in places like Palo Alto, Calif., and Flagstaff, Ariz. When Ford calls home, it’s a big event. “It’s all about Ford,” Palmer said. “Whenever I’m on the phone with Ford, she has to talk to him, and she’s always asking when he’s coming home for the weekend. It’s a special bond between the two of them.” Challenging herself Palmer said that Mia is a master of the art of imitation. She’ll watch sporting events and mimic the mannerisms of professional athletes. And with the amount of energy she has, Palmer knew at some point he had to get her involved in some type of organized sports. The Upper Township Challenger Sports League was the perfect fit. The League, started by Daryl DiTroia and wife Jen, hosts a variety of sports in all seasons for special needs children, and Mia has become a star, Palmer said. “One of the things Mia is very good at is imitation. She can imitate things she sees on TV, different sporting type of things she sees on TV or in person, and when Ford is around she’s always trying to do what Ford does. I’ve been taking her to track meets for years with Ford running, so she knows how to get into the blocks, all that stuff. She looks up to him and tries to emulate and imitate him all the time,” Palmer said. “In (Challenger) baseball she will walk up to the plate and bang the dirt off her spikes with the bat, her coaches get a kick out of that. She sees it on TV so she does the same thing. It’s made her very competitive. Watching Ford has made her competitive. It’s not all about winning, but she gives it her all. “The Challenger program, Daryl and his wife have a special needs son and I think that’s what started the whole thing. They’ve got these programs now that gets all these kids involved, and volunteers. All the local high schools send their kids out there to volunteer and it’s really special to see everyone come together.” Ford said he wishes he had more time to devote to helping out the Challenger League. “I love that program. I’m so glad my dad and her mom got her involved in that. I watch her go out and play soccer, for the Special Olympics I bring my friends to come support her. It’s really helped her out a lot,” Ford said. “I’m a huge supporter of the Challenger program. I’d love to help them out more often. It allows her to interact with other children, also. With her being a special needs child, it’s hard sometimes for her to have close friends, but the Challenger program has allowed her to be in a situation with similar children, and she gets along with them great.” Role reversal As a well-known area athlete, Ford carries the mantle of being a role model to younger kids. And his father says Ford is great in that role. “Ford has always been really good with kids. He was a mentor through high school. He’s always been good with siblings, always very supportive,” Palmer said. “Mia does all sorts of different sports and Ford is always out there in the yard working with her. It’s good to see because she looks up to him so much.” Ironically, though, it is Mia who teaches Ford more than he has ever taught her. When he is grinding through miles and miles of training, dealing with the soreness, fatigue and physical pain that comes along with being a professional runner, Ford always has that constant little reminder in the back of his mind about what the big picture of life really entails. “Mia’s always positive, always smiling, always upbeat. We call her the Energizer Bunny because she is just non-stop,” Palmer said. “Whether you have a challenge or you don’t, you can’t help but be upbeat around Mia. She’s just energy.” Said Ford, “Whatever she does going through her teen years and beyond, she’s going to be great. She has the right mindset and attitude. The one thing she really reminds me to do is have fun with the sport. She goes out there to be competitive, but she also just loves running. Sometimes I get caught up in being too nervous, or trying to win for prize money, but I just need to go out there and have fun and that’s what she teaches me.” Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]

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