McGill Scholarship winner Ryan Scully of River Dell is a man of his word by Paul Schwartz of The Record
ROCHELLE PARK – Monica Scully froze.
She and her second child, Ryan, were in for his 2-year-old checkup. Ryan had already hit all his physical checkmarks, walking, using a cup, but the doctor had another query.
“Does he say 10 words?”
Monica had gotten used to the way Ryan communicated. He would point at things he wanted. His big brother Matthew was “I-yo.” She was “Gah-ga.” He was also more content to do puzzles or play trains by himself than engage with other kids.
He wasn’t saying 10 words.
Ryan Scully has since broadened his vocabulary and his world. This is not a story about a kid being derailed by speech apraxia and an Asperger’s diagnosis. Ryan became one of River Dell’s best distance runners and 800-meter men. He’s won multiple scholarships, including the Charlie McGill Scholarship from The Record handed out at the North Jersey Sports Awards on Thursday night. He’s made lifelong friends. He’s heading to Bergen Community College. He’s become an inspiration to his family and teammates.
“I was always trying to go out there [in the world] yet I would always feel like I would be excluded,” said Ryan. “Back then, I wanted to be alone, but there was a part of me that needed to go out there and communicate with the world.”
Shortly after that doctor’s visit, speech therapy started right away and Ryan improved. He speaks slowly now, but clear and strong. The Asperger’s diagnosis explained away some of Ryan’s mannerisms, going to restaurants and climbing out of booths over and over, blanching at loud noises.
“When he was young, he would run the gamut,” said Ryan’s father Mark. “Throwing fits, flailing, hitting me, grabbing, screaming. He could not sit in a [school] assembly up until fourth or fifth grade.”
One of the biggest triggers for kids with Asperger’s is sound, or more precisely, irregular sound. Having Asperger’s can best be described as the world around you being turned up to 11 – at all times. It’s sensory overload, and children often cope by retreating to a safe, quiet space.
The Scully family refused to see Ryan as different. There are skills that can be taught to help mitigate the impact of the noisy world and the Scully family was going to do everything they could. Mark had always encouraged his kids to be active in sports. Ryan was going to do it too.
The sport was track, and at first, he hated it.
“You want to stop after that first lap,” said Ryan. “It took years of development, getting things straight and seeing what suited me. I started to enjoy it.”
Ryan didn’t (or wouldn’t) run, so he threw the shot put at first. But around seventh grade he realized he had an aptitude for running. He would show up, and other kids knew they were all competing for second place.
But then Ryan had to leave the safe nest of Rochelle Park and attend River Dell (to use some of the school’s expanded offerings). Imagine the fear, first day of summer practice. You don’t know anyone. They barely know you, and you’re not sure you can communicate with them of if they’ll make fun of you if you try.
“Yeah, I had quite the anxiety and nervousness,” remembers Ryan. “I wasn’t sure what we were going to do. I just tried to stick with everyone, do a warm-up mile, stretch, and then we would get to the actual running routine.”
Slowly, but surely, Ryan made friends with the other runners and he rattles off their names smoothly: Pat Robertson, Colin and Will Daly, Colin Antonelli, Gary Wilhelm, Daniel Murray.
You ask him what his proudest achievement is at River Dell, and it’s not the times, or the medals. It’s this, right here: Friends.
As a senior this past year, Ryan took on one of the leadership roles. He was the one helping lead the workouts and the stretches. He, personally, didn’t qualify for the State Meet of Champions, but still made the 75-mile trip to Northern Burlington High School to cheer for the Hawks.
“He’s the ultimate teammate,” said Mark.
Ryan has become an example of what a kid can do when he doesn’t let himself be defined by any disability. Matthew marvels at how his little brother who never wanted to play is a standout runner, his younger sister Caitlin thinks he’s amazing.
“I look up to Ryan and he shows me how in life, no matter what struggles you go through or what other people think of you, by working hard and keeping your mind on something, you’re able to be successful,” said Caitlin.
Monica chokes up when she talks about Ryan. It’s a harrowing moment to live through at that doctor’s office. At that time, there was talk that Ryan may not read. But those fears were unfounded; he has a 94 GPA at River Dell. Every goal he set, he achieved.
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“I am just so proud of so many things,” said Monica. “Just the type of person…the kind-heartedness, everything he has overcome. He’s just a good person.”
Ryan’s world is still expanding. He’s planning on studying film at Bergen Community College, and hoping to stay in touch with his former teammates at River Dell, maybe train with them during the winter. He’s said to his dad that he’s thought about becoming a motivational speaker.
“Don’t be defined by labels,” said Ryan. “Let people define you by your actions and what you accomplish.”
More honest words have never been said.