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A special coach for special needs kids

Eric Lider is a champion at helping students become athletes

Photo Credit: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - When it comes to helping Lake Oswego students participate in track, nobody beats Eric Lider. In the front row, left to right, are Irving Herrera, David Holmes, Eric Lider and Megan Schiedler. In back are C.J. Yapp, Matthew Switzer, Emily Rich and Wyatt Isaacs.

Trail blazer. Pioneer. Ground breaker.

Those are words that describe Eric Lider because of his work with students with special needs in Lake Oswego. He has made a huge difference in their lives with the Challenger program and by giving them the chance to compete in track.

This accomplishment was recently recognized when Lider was among those who received the Unsung Hero Award from the Lake Oswego City Council.

Lider was greatly honored to receive the award, but he wants to set the record straight.

“In the bigger picture, many people take ownership in the success of these programs,” Lider said. “There are so many people involved.”

Photo Credit: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - As a track coach for nearly four decades, Eric Lider has lots of good advice for Irving Herrera.

They include the four or five girls who train and run with special needs athletes on the Lake Oswego High School track team, the girls from the National Charity League who work with the Challenger class, parents and the Lake Oswego School District’s administration and coaches.

They all surely deserve appreciation, but without Lider’s leadership and dedication there would not be a program that is setting a new standard for enriching the school experience for special needs students.

Photo Credit: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Everyone is happy as Eric Lider clicks on his stop watch for sprinting practice. Lider has broken new ground for helping special needs kids in Lake Oswego.

“For me doing this has always been part of my profession,” Lider said. “When a chance comes to help a special needs kid, I reach out for that to happen. I really feel strongly about participation and inclusion and being part of where you are. Think of how special it is for these kids to wear their school uniform.”

Certainly, Special Olympics is a program that has helped thousands of special needs kids to compete in sports, and Lider says, “I believe Special Olympics has a purpose.”

But Lider believes involving special needs kids on the LOHS track team is something different and better.

“Special Olympics does not connect a student athlete to their school,” he said. “Being in the team photo, taking part in the team cheer at meets and interacting with other student athletes. That is what I want.”

What Lider and his supporters have done in Lake Oswego is so unique that it is sometimes misunderstood. At cross country meets he alters the course for special needs runners, so they can be part of the race in a safe and appropriate way, and volunteers get out on the course to coach the runners. Sometimes, however, spectators have yelled, “That’s illegal!”

“When I heard that it taught me a lot,” Lider said. “It told me they didn’t get what was happening.”

Fortunately, incomprehension of what he is doing is otherwise unknown for Lider. He has received whole-hearted support from the community from the start.

“It has been a great success,” Lider said. “The special needs kids are part of our track and cross-country teams. Some of them give our inspirational talks, and it is so heartwarming.”

The special needs students pay back those who help them with lots of inspiration. Volunteering by girls from the National Charity League for the Challenger class is so avid that Lider said, “They wait in line like they’re waiting for ski tickets.” Even better, Lider said, “A lot of those kids have told me that they want helping special needs kids to be their professions. This program has really planted seeds.”

Lider has been attuned to the need of special needs students for all of his very long coaching career. He was head track coach at Lake Oswego High for 31 years, plus five more years as an assistant track coach. In this role, he greatly pushed participation from many students. His last Laker track team had 140 athletes (“I would take 300 kids if I could.”) while his cross country team had a high of 120 runners.

Still, Lider’s dedication to special needs students did not emerge full blown. It needed years to develop.

“At the beginning I was so concerned about winning and losing,” he said.

Eventually, Lider followed his heart more and more, and along the way he received guidance from Sue Fuller, a learning specialist at Oak Creek Elementary School. He calls Fuller “my private mentor.”

“Sue showed me how to help special needs kids experience track and field,” Lider said. “They got to feel the sand in the long jump pits and the pads in the high jump. The touching-feeling part of track is something they can relate to.”

Fuller declines to describe herself as Lider’s mentor. She said she is just a friend who brainstorms ideas. To Fuller, Lider has given a shot of energy that has transformed special needs education in Lake Oswego.

“I was thrilled when he became coach to the Challenger fitness class,” Fuller said. “Not only has this developed fitness but the class opens up new activities for students with disabilities.

“Eric is successful because he is so enthusiastic about including all students, no matter their ability level, in activities. He thoroughly deserves his recent accolades.”

For a man who coached track and field and cross country for four decades, Lider looks remarkably unbattered and unbowed.

“I’ve had my challenges,” he said. “But I keep a smiley face.”

However, last year Lider decided that the administrative side of coaching track — such as scheduling as many as 560 competition slots at a track meet — was becoming too strenuous. In July 2014 he retired as head track coach at LOHS, although he will stick around for a while as cross country coach.

“I won’t miss waking up at 3 a.m. at night and worrying about things I haven’t done,” Lider said. “The hardest part is giving up the best job in the state, because of the kids, faculty, parents, coaches and administration.”

But he is definitely not retiring from finding ways to help special needs students compete in sports.

“I will continue to seek opportunities for them,” Lider said. “I want to talk to other coaches to show them how easy it is to include special needs kids on their teams. And also how important it is to include them on their teams.”

Eric Lider’s career is far from over, but it is not too soon for him to receive tributes like the one he got with the Unsung Hero Award. The presentation statement said, “Lake Oswego is lucky to have a coach with such integrity, energy and compassion.”

Cliff Newell can be reached at 503-636-1281 ext. 105 or cnewell@lakeoswegoreview.com.

Photo Credit: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Emily Rich gets some encouragement from Eric Lider at track practice at Lake Oswego High School. Despite retiring as LOHS head track coach, Lider is still making a difference in the lives of students.

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