MODESTO — Gregori and Downey high schools are locked in a Modesto Metro Conference dual track meet and it's time to run the final heat in the boys 100-meter dash.
Five runners take their places in the blocks, and Chuck Hughes Stadium grows quiet. That silence is broken by the crack of a starter's pistol. Four of the runners zoom down the track and cross the finish line in roughly 11 seconds about average for high school boys.
But far up the track, one runner still churns. At 11 seconds, he hasn't quite reached the midway point of the race. He struggles against his own body, not just to keep up, but to stay upright.
When he finally does cross the finish line, some 17 seconds after his competitors, the crowd lets you know who won this race.
Nineteen-year-old Billy Borst, a senior at Gregori, has been running far behind the pack since the day he arrived on this planet.
Born 15 weeks premature, he weighed just 1 pound, 13 ounces, and spent his first 96 days in the hospital. Three years later, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy a disorder caused by abnormal development in the brain affecting movement, muscle tone and posture.
Until the sixth grade, Billy required the aid of a walker and leg braces, but surgery to lengthen tendons in his hips, knees and ankles improved his gait.
"His muscles were so tight, he couldn't even touch his heels to the ground," says his mother, Terry Borst. "With him walking on his toes, as he got older, his falls got worse."
The walker was history after the operation, but many obstacles remained.
"There are two steps leading to my classroom, and he couldn't walk up the steps," says Todd Dunaway, who teaches English and coaches track at Manteca's East Union High, where Billy attended school until last year. "He had to walk all the way down to use the ramps."
Dunaway figured that with some training, Billy might be able to make it up those steps. So, when he saw Billy on campus
"I yelled across the blacktop, 'Hey, Billy, you need to come out for the track team!' " recalls Dunaway. "I was very serious."
So was Billy.
"I told him to go for it, but I feared that he'd fall or look funny," Terry Borst says. "Just different from everybody else. I didn't really know what to expect. I get nervous every time he goes out to a new high school, but every time, it's been just amazing."
That first season, Billy competed in the 100- and 200-meter dashes. The first time he stretched out to 200 meters came at Oakdale High, on an all-weather track. Running on such a track with spikes was something new for Billy. Three times he fell. And three times he got up and started running again.
"I'm yelling, 'Get up, Billy, get up!' " says East Union sprint coach Don Tisher. "When he finally crossed the finish line he gives me a big ol' hug and says, 'Coach, I did it!' There were tears rolling down his face. Mine, too."
Billy eventually ran the 400 and 800, and there were plans to run the mile this season, but he and his sister, Kristin, a pitcher on the school's softball team, transferred to Gregori (their mother works nearby at Hi-Tec Sports USA).
During one track meet at Gregori, players from Kristin's softball team left practice and showed up at the track to cheer her brother on, wearing T-shirts with "Go, Billy!" emblazoned on the front.
"Billy is my biggest inspiration," says Kristin, a star pitcher for the Jaguars. "He's not scared to try anything, he's not scared who sees him. He wants to prove he can do anything. It's amazing.
"When I'm on the mound, I always think, 'There's nothing to be scared of. Billy wouldn't be scared. Have confidence.' "
Of course, Billy wishes he didn't have cerebral palsy "I wish I could walk normally," he says but he's also happy with who he is.
"I've been able to turn this into a positive," he says of his disability. "I'd like people to know that you can achieve whatever you want through hard work and perseverance."
That's a fact not lost on his teammates.
"Seeing Billy finish a race is the most inspiring thing I've seen this year," says Morgan Lewis, a junior sprinter at Gregori. "We all envy him. We all look up to him."
The opposition feels much the same way.
"There are kids who are physically outstanding that don't have the heart that Billy has to make it around that track one time," says Downey track and field coach Russ Garcia. "I hope my kids learn from that."
Finishing a race in first, second, third or last place isn't the point for Billy. For him, it's simply about finishing.
But three weeks ago, during a league meet, that changed.
As the gun sounded and the runners broke from their blocks at the start of the 100 meters, Billy noticed he wasn't, for once, in last place.
"I thought, 'Whoa! Am I really running past these guys?' " says Billy. "I had no idea what they were planning to do. It was a surprise to me. But after four or five strides, I figured out what they were doing."
A group of Modesto High rivals hung back, ran at Billy's pace and let him win the race.
"It made me feel special," says Billy. "I felt like I was on the top of the world."
And for once, Billy Borst wasn't playing catch-up.
For a Gregori High student video report on Billy, go to schooltube.com.
Bee staff writer Joe Cortez can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2380.