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WINDSOR - Tasked with running a mile, a small group of Windsor High School students who call themselves the Run Like a Jaguar club set out, everyone at their own pace.

Each time he completed a lap, Matthew Garduna would shout, to no one in particular, “Super fast! Super powers!”

When he finished his mile workout, I asked him how he felt.

“I’m a superhero like Steve Rogers,” Garduna said, indicating the alter ego of Captain America.

Garduna, 21, is a big fan of superheroes. But in the past few months, the die hard fan of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has altered his definition of superhero.

“He’s ‘Runner Man’ now,” his mom, Karen Garduna, said.

Thank Spencer Rivara for that.

Rivara, a senior at Windsor High, started working with two special needs classes on campus back in January. One afternoon each week, usually on a Monday or Tuesday, he led the group, now dubbed the Run Like a Jaguar club, in stretches and light calisthenics. Then the group would hit the track.

At a recent workout, some runners took off at full gas. Others locked into a steady pace they could maintain and counted down the laps as they rounded the track. All the while, Rivara, a five-minute miler on the Jaguars’ track team, jogged between each runner, offering encouragement as he trotted alongside.

“I’m just very proud to be a coach for them and to help them,” Rivara said. “Not just help them be in and get in shape, but also help their mind and to help them focus. I think that’s a good thing for them and I’m really proud of that.”

Rivara knows well the benefits of running on mind and body.

Diagnosed with an auditory processing disorder, Rivara said that running helps him focus and concentrate — both in school and in social settings.

“I’m on the autism spectrum but it’s really mild,” he said. “Running has helped me with that. I’m able to better concentrate.”

It also doesn’t hurt that he’s good at it.

A 5-minute miler for the Jags and a member of the cross country team, Rivara has found confidence in his running successes.

“It’s made me focus on my abilities and not my disabilities,” he said.

And the culture of a team has been a boon, said Spencer’s dad Mike Rivara.

“It’s a way for him to be accepted. It’s the social side that all of us have,” he said.

Which makes Rivara’s choice for his senior project, the Run Like a Jaguar club, all the more poignant. Rivara wanted to bring running to a group that might not get to experience those exercise-induced endorphin highs or feel the elation of having a teammate cheer your successes.

“He knows they have struggles,” Mike Rivara said. And he knows people have judgments.

“Here is somebody who comes along and doesn’t care what you look like or how fast you are,” he said. “Who wouldn’t feel special? I know that is exactly why he does it.”

The students’ teacher, Stephen Tinelli, said Run Like a Jaguar workouts have become a highlight of the week for most students.

“They identify with him as a friend,” Tinelli said. “It puts that human connection to it, whereas sometimes this population doesn’t get that interaction.”

I asked one runner what she thought of coach Spencer, the same guy who just made her run four laps.

“He’s my friend,” she said.

I asked what makes him a friend.

“He awesome … he’s smart and because I like him,” she said.

That is not something Tinelli can create in a classroom setting and it’s not something that can be faked.

“There are so many learning opportunities that happen out there on the track that are unique to that setting that I can’t create in the classroom,” he said. “The best way to work on our social skills is out there working on social skills, not in the classroom working on a text.”

When one runner finished his mile workout, having walked most of the way, Rivara greeted him at the finish.

“There you go, Eddie! Good job,” he said, holding up his hand for a high-five. Eddie didn’t recognize the gesture and left Rivara hanging. Rivara just smiled.

Another runner said little throughout the workout, except, “I’m a Jaguar! I’m a Jaguar with Spencer!” He repeated it as he ran.

Karen Garduna said Matthew so looks forward to the workout that he makes sure he is wearing special shoes on Run Like a Jaguar days.

“He’s excited. He talks about it,” she said.

After Garduna finished his mile at a recent workout, I asked him how he felt.

“I love running,” he said.

And Spencer? What does he think of his coach?

“He’s strong,” Garduna said. “And he’s a super hero.”

You’ll get no argument here.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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