Running through land mines: Jack Harrison has used his time as cross-country, track-and-field runner at West Forsyth to overcome family hardship

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 25, 2024

By Jay Spivey

For the Clemmons Courier

Jack Harrison never really ran until he was in eighth grade at Redeemer School in Winston-Salem.

Now, as a junior at West Forsyth, Harrison is one of the best runners on the boys’ cross-country, indoor track-and-field, and outdoor track-and-field teams, but he also uses running for an even bigger purpose.

First, his dad encouraged him to run in eighth grade because of his physical build. Second, one of his sisters, Emma, has Friedrich’s ataxia.

According to HopkinsMedicine.org, the website for Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, “Friedreich’s ataxia is a rare, inherited, degenerative disease. It damages the spinal cord, peripheral nerves, and the cerebellum portion of the brain. This condition tends to develop in children and teens and gradually worsens over time. Unsteady, awkward movements and a loss of sensation due to nerve injury develop as the disease progresses.”

Despite all the hardships that Emma is going through, Jack uses her as motivation in his own life.

“Simple tasks like walking and writing are hard.” Jack Harrison said. “I run because she can’t. She is definitely motivating. It’s hard. Walking is a big-time deal for her.”

Emma Harrison, who is 14 years old, was born with the condition, but it didn’t start, according to Jack Harrison, until about two years ago.

“We’ve done testing, and it turns out that a lot of my family has the gene for,” Jack Harrison said. “I’m a carrier for it. I don’t have it, but I’ll probably pass it on to my kids.”

Until the signs of the disease started showing in Emma, she led a normal life.

“She danced,” Jack Harrison said. “She did a bunch of stuff.”

Just a junior in high school, there’s a long process before considering becoming a father.

“(I’ll) probably have to do some testing down the road with my partner,” Jack Harrison said.

Jack Harrison isn’t the only one in the family who is a carrier. His other sister, Olivia Grace, a sixth-grader, is also a carrier. His father, Martin, has a family history of being carriers.

“It’s predominantly from my dad’s side,” Jack Harrison said, “We think that my grandmother, who’s now passed, had it. But she didn’t know about it. She showed all the signs of it now that we know.”

Life for the Harrisons has made a 180-degree turn.

“It’s completely different,” Jack Harrison said. “It’s a little bit disheartening when you have to see your little sister in a wheelchair. It’s why time will go places. It’s a whole new world.”

The oddity is that Emma’s showing signs of the disease is almost the same timeline as when Jack started running.

“It’s really hard. I’m not going to lie,” Jack Harrison said. “But it’s hard. But you know, she trusts in the Lord; she knows that His plans are good. He’s got a plan for her, so we’re going to trust in that.”

Nathan Newsome, the cross-country, indoor track-and-field, and outdoor track-and-field coach at West Forsyth, didn’t know much about Harrison before he started attending the school and wasn’t aware of Emma’s condition.

“With Jack, anybody that knows Jack, that wouldn’t surprise ’em at all,” Newsome said. “You know, I heard the phrase one time, ‘Somebody that has character beyond reproach.’ And he’s that kid.

“You know, if you want something done the right way, or if you needed somebody to handle a critical or an important task, I can give Jack that responsibility, and know 100 percent it’s going to be handled how it should. So, with him having that additional focus and drive, you know, it just kind of makes sense that he’s aspiring to try to attribute what he’s doing to her, as well.”

In some respects, Emma is much like the Newsome family, who are heavily into art.

“She still paints,” Jack said of Emma. “That’s one of her passions.”

Although running for just the past three or four years, Jack Harrison uses all of that to his benefit.

“Running does clear my mind,” he said. “I’ll probably run until the wheels fall off.”

One other thing helps Jack Harrison and his family.

“We just trust in the Lord,” he said. “That’s all.”

Jack Harrison also trusted his dad in middle school.

“My dad just being persistent,” Jack said. “(He said), ‘You’ve got the build for it. I’m a good runner. You can be a good runner.’ So, I owe a lot to my dad in that regard.”

Although Jack Harrison is a relative novice in running, that doesn’t mean he was a couch potato as a child.

“I played everything – basketball, football, and just stayed active for the most part. Hiking,” Jack Harrison said.

His parents, Martin and Marie, also chose for him to attend Redeemer instead of a public middle school.

“My parents wanted me to go to a smaller school where I could really learn academically,” Jack Harrison said, “It’s a Christian school. Me and my family, our faith. So, it was a great school atmosphere. And my parents, in third grade, they were like, ‘Let’s get you over there.'”

Jack Harrison’s initial run didn’t go so well.

“It was terrible,” he said. “I did not like it. But you know, it got easier over time, and by the same month, I started liking it a little bit. And it really took me about the middle of cross-country my freshman year (at West Forsyth) for me to start liking it.”

Newsome has seen all kinds of runners in his career as a coach for the Titans.

“He showed up at your traditional tryouts, you know, for cross-country,” Newsome said of Jack Harrison. “He’s a yes, sir, no, sir, pretty much straightforward, nice, diligent kid. And he’s a hard worker, wanting to be good. He wasn’t one of the top kids when he first started, but he wanted to be.”

All of that hard work started to pay off for Jack.

“He wanted to be good,” Newsome said. “He’s, ‘Yes, sir, I want to be good. I want to do what it takes.’ So, I was like, ‘Alright, do what you’ve got to do. And he has stayed the course of that for three years now. And he has gotten better and better and better. You know, just hard work has got him pretty far.

“He’s a really good team leader. He does everything as it’s supposed to be done.”

Those traits that Newsome is talking about will pay off well if Jack Harrison gets to attend the college he wants to after he graduates.

“It’s hard. I’ve learned a lot of time-management skills with running,” he said. “I’m very academically (inclined). I take a lot of hard classes. I’ve got nine college classes right now at Forsyth Tech.”

The only class Jack Harrison, who has a 4.5 GPA, is actually taking at West Forsyth is JROTC. After he graduates from West Forsyth in 2025, he wants to attend the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, with the hopes of majoring in political science.

“I’ve wanted to go into the military for a good little bit now,” Jack Harrison said. “And I figured ROTC would be a good entryway into it, get me used to it.”

Although he currently has no active family members in the military, his great-grandfather on his dad’s side was a Navy Frogman in World War II. They were the Navy Seals in World War II. And the stories he told were crazy.”

Jack Harrison said he was eight years old when his great-grandfather died.

“I knew a lot. He enlisted when he was 14. Got kicked out Marine boot camp because he was too young, but he came back and enlisted in the Navy when he was 15,” Jack Harrison said.
Much like somebody in the military, Jack Harrison wakes up at 5 a.m., works out, and goes to ROTC practice. He’s also on the archery and academic teams for ROTC, which he does from 7-8:30 a.m., comes home and does his Forsyth Tech work. He practices for track at 4 p.m., comes home, works out again, and goes to sleep.

“I know he has a pretty extensive interest in military stuff,” Newsome said. “And I think it was just part of, well, ‘I need to be very fit; therefore, I should do this.’ Very matter-of-fact.”

All that hard work in all facets of Jack Harrison’s life has paid off.

“He’s just been kind of unwavering about it, and he’s ended up being pretty dang good,” Newsome said. “He’s pretty raw, and he’s getting better. The hard part with runners is just getting them to push through discomfort and pain and sticking with the regimen of training. He handles that part fine. I think most of his success has just come through hard work and determination.”

Jack Harrison has a love for politics, and he said his dad is a lawyer. You might even see him be a politician one day. Much of life trajectory started with that first run in middle-school, and he’s carried that through his first three years at West Forsyth.

“We’re a storied program,” he said of West Forsyth. “I’m glad to be a part of that program and be a part of the tradition, carry it on.”