High School Sports

From orphanage in China to trails of KC, blind high school runner just breaks barriers

A runner with NORTHWEST emblazoned across the front of his singlet appears to be escorted by another runner in a bright orange T-shirt. This is not normal — why would a runner out of uniform be so close to another runner approaching the finish line?

And instead of trying to beat him to the finish, this second runner looks to be what, coaching him? No, wait ... he’s guiding him. The runner from Blue Valley Northwest High is visually impaired. Legally blind, actually, and running in a high school cross-country race ...

This story begins in the bedroom of an orphanage in Linyi, a city of more than 10 million people in the northeast corner of China near the Yellow Sea. Two boys who don’t know their natural parents and have been orphaned friends for as long as they can remember make a verbal pact as they lie on their backs and stare at the ceiling.

“If you get adopted first,” Shen Jie says to Guo Fu Liang, “promise me you will try to get your new family to adopt me. And I will do the same if I get adopted before you.” The two boys repeat this oath to each other so often and for so long it becomes a running joke between them.

In reality, the chances of either boy being adopted were fading with each passing birthday. And Liang had almost run out of birthdays. He was 13 now, and it’s unlawful in China for children 14 or older to be adopted by families outside of the country. The process is known as “aging out.”

Add to the issue with Liang’s advancing age the fact that he was born with microphthalmia, a developmental disorder of the eyes rendering him legally blind since birth, and his chances for adoption dropped even lower.

What real friendship looks like

Shen Jie, two years younger than Liang, was the recipient of the first miracle in this story when Johnson County resident Jan Clarkson brought him to America as her fifth adopted child from China.

Shen Jie was now Josh Clarkson, living some 7,000 miles from the orphanage where Liang still lived. But their pact remained strong.

Some friends are friends merely in name. Some friends are there when you need a ride to the airport. And then there are friends like Josh Clarkson, who refused to forget a promise he’d made to someone he considers his brother.

Shortly after arriving in Overland Park, Josh began campaigning to get Liang adopted in the U.S. This was not a seasoned diplomat relying on experience and knowledge of the inner workings of international adoption to find an American family for his friend. This was an 11-year-old orphan who could barely communicate in an all-English-speaking country — a kid who had never even ridden in an automobile.

But the persuasiveness of someone who knows the clock is ticking on his best friend should not be underestimated.

“We don’t leave anybody behind,” Josh explained in a somber tone, his trademark grin absent when asked about his efforts to hold up his end of the bargain.

Josh would describe Liang in glowing terms to anyone who would listen.

“He is the best at everything!” he’d say. “He is so smart! He is so great! He is my brother!”

“We weren’t the first family Josh approached about adopting his friend,” recalled Kristin Thurlby, a family friend of the Clarksons. “But the more Josh described his friend, the more I began to think about him and taking that plunge. I remember saying to my husband, ‘I think Josh is describing our son!’”

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Josh Clarkson, left, and Liam Thurlby share a brotherhood-like friendship that has spanned years and continents. Greg Hall Special to The Star

Kristin and Trace Thurlby weren’t novices when it came to international adoption. Ten years earlier, they had added a newborn Chinese baby, Elliese, to a household that included their two biological daughters, Hannah and Carolyn. As part of the process of Elliese’s adoption, Kristin and Trace had filled out mountains of forms.

“One of the boxes we were asked to check before adopting Elliese was, ‘Would you accept a special needs child?’” Kristin said. “We checked, ‘No.’”

Now, suddenly, the Thurlbys were holding family discussions about the pros and cons of adopting a 13-year-old Chinese boy with special needs. Elliese, in fourth grade at the time, was maybe the most difficult to convince. As the baby of the family and the only Chinese kid in their home, she was not all that keen on adding an adopted brother.

“I remember talking about it with Elliese as she sat in the back seat while we were driving,” Kristin recalled. “She was probably the least interested, and I wanted to convince her this would be a good thing for our family. I explained to her that the boy was now thirteen-and-a-half years old, and once he turned 14, he could no longer be adopted by any families outside of China. This caught her attention and made her pause. I will never forget what she said to me next.”

“We better go fast,” Elliese said.

“If you had told me four years ago that we would be adopting a grown kid from China who is legally blind, well … I don’t know what I would have done,” Kristin said. “But I sure would not have believed it.”

It wasn’t long before the family was traveling to the orphanage in Linyi to meet and adopt Guo Fu Liang, or Liam, as he’s known today.

Coming ‘home’ to Kansas

Their first meeting was awkward. Liam spoke no English, and the Thurlbys, despite hours of free tutoring from supportive Chinese friends back home, basically spoke no Mandarin.

Kristin had the brilliant idea of purchasing all the Star Wars DVDs, dubbed in Chinese with English subtitles. This was how they initially communicated as the family holed up in a Linyi hotel for two weeks, waiting for Liam’s adoption papers to be processed.

“When Liam discovered Luke and Leia were brother and sister,” Kristin said, “he got so excited he sprinted around the hotel room yelling at the television in Chinese.”

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The Thurlby family on a vacation in Arkansas. Pictured from left to right are Carolyn, Liam, Kristin, Trace, Elliese and Hannah. Courtesy photo

But once Liam and his new family arrived back in Kansas, things were far from perfect.

“The adjustments for Liam were not easy,” Kristin admitted. “The first two years were difficult for him. He didn’t know the language, the foods were all strange, and he now has expectations placed on him that he never before experienced.”

At the orphanage, Liam lived a simple life. He was considered a special needs child who would be of little use beyond menial tasks.

Not so in the Thurlby household.

“We explained to Liam that our expectations of him were no different than our expectations of our three sighted daughters,” said Kristin. “He receives no special attention from us because of his blindness. Everyone has issues they need to overcome. Some are just bigger than others.”

After his first day at Oxford Middle School, Liam came home completely frustrated.

“Everyone at school speaks English,” he whimpered in his native Mandarin tongue.

Liam’s writing utensil in China resembled an old nail that he used to punch holes in paper to write in braille. In the progressive Blue Valley School District, he was inundated with strange technology. An expensive laptop replaced his trusty nail. He was now sharing a classroom with students who could all see the teacher as well as the marker and smart boards.

“Liam would often come to me those first two years and tell me something was too hard,” Kristin said. “English was too hard, or school was too hard. We had to explain to Liam that sometimes we all must do hard things. That is just what life is about. Being blind is no excuse for not working hard and being your best.”

Even the simplest things were new and confusing. Liam and Josh chuckle now when they remember how Kristin often had to remind Josh not to open the car door while they were driving.

Learning to swim was another transition. Liam had never been in the water, but the Thurlbys vacation often at Lake of the Ozarks. Now Liam competes in the 50- and 100-meter sprints on the Blue Valley Northwest swim team and plays the flute in the school band.

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Liam Thurlby, left, guided by Shane Friedrichsen, nears the finish line of a 5K race at the Ray-Pec Invitational in mid-September. Greg Hall Special to The Star

Three and a half years into his life as the Thurlbys’ only son, he has adapted well to life in America’s heartland.

“He is fiercely independent,” Kristin said. “He is supposed to use a white cane, but he refuses to have anything to do with it. He has an incredible memory and he quickly memorizes layouts and knows where he needs to go.”

He also pulls excellent grades.

“I have all A’s except an 89 percent in English,” he said proudly.

Liam says the school curriculum in America is not as difficult as it is in China. But it also might be that Liam is just very bright. Listening to him speak, it’s hard to believe he only learned English three years ago.

No obstacle too large

Liam began running with his dad, Trace, and found it a good way for a blind kid to stay active and in shape. But he didn’t really enjoy running. Nothing odd about that.

It was his sister, Carolyn, who refused to let him slide over the summer after they both joined the high school’s cross country team.

“She is a lot more dedicated than I am,” Liam admitted.

Carolyn was there at his bedroom door on warm summer mornings, telling her brother to get out of bed and come with her to run.

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Here’s the Thurlby clan of kids today, on a recent family vacation to Montana: from left to right are Liam, Carolyn, Hannah and Elliese. Courtesy photo

Liam spent part of the summer at the Kansas State School for the Blind Camp and fell back into more sedentary habits while he was away. When he got home, he realized he wasn’t in very good shape anymore.

That did not sit well with Liam. He stopped skipping the morning runs and started doing Carolyn’s daily ab workout, too. Liam usually trains after school with his sister and schoolmate Riley Beach, who was the Kansas Class 6A cross country champion as a freshman. The girls run on either side of Liam to guide him.

“They’re really fast,” he said. “I mean really fast.”

“Liam is competitive and always wants to beat me,” Carolyn said. “He can run just as fast as any sighted person. He understands there are no excuses.”

This summer, after a morning run with his sister, Liam walked into the Thurlbys’ kitchen with blood streaming down his left cheek.

“What happened?” his mother asked.

“Oh, he’s fine, mom,” Carolyn replied casually. “He just got a little too close to a pine tree.”

“Liam is awesome,” said Ian Frazier, his high school cross country coach. “He has a huge heart and a hardworking spirit about him that is rare. Liam has all the excuses to not do the work, but he refuses to use any of them.

“His sister Carolyn, who nobody is paying attention to yet but is about to have a breakout season, pushes him because she is so focused and driven. Success breeds success in that family. Their family is a big part of why Liam’s sight limitation is a non-issue — they are so supportive.”

The feeling is mutual when it comes to how the Thurlbys feel about their son and daughter’s coach. “Coach Frazier makes it all happen,” Kristin said. “He is one of the most important people in our lives right now. He is one of the most encouraging people I’ve ever met.”

Nowadays, Liam is not all that different from most high school juniors. He craves his private moments in a household with three sisters. He’s even hung a bell on his bedroom door to better monitor when someone comes into his room. As Kristin relayed her theory on why the bell was installed, a mischievous smile crossed his face.

“The bell is merely for decorative purposes,” he said.

Few outsiders know just how much love and friendship has gone into such moments. What’s important is that Liam’s story is just now beginning, and the ending can be whatever he is willing to make of it.

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