WHO: Kayleigh Williamson, 33, an endurance athlete from Austin.
WHAT: An emotional finish at the New York City Marathon.
WHY IT’S SO GREAT: Marathon running just might be the most egalitarian, unifying sport in America. Professionals and amateurs follow the same course and compete in the same event, and the only gear you really need is a decent pair of sneakers. Parents push toddlers in strollers; runners in their eighties zip ahead of twentysomethings. It’s not uncommon to see athletes who are blind or use wheelchairs or are amputees. On any given race day, a veteran in full military uniform might jog alongside a group of siblings chugging along in memory of their late parents, or a guy sweating in one of those oversized, inflatable dinosaur costumes. This is the beauty of the marathon: everyone belongs, and everyone supports one another.
This week folks around the world are cheering for Kayleigh Williamson, 33, of Austin. Like many, she picked up the sport partly in search of a healthier lifestyle. When Williamson first laced up her running shoes in 2016, she’d recently learned she had prediabetes and Graves’ disease, an autoimmune condition. Her grandmother was also living with Alzheimer’s disease, which is more common in people who have Down syndrome, another of Williamson’s diagnoses. Runners with Down syndrome face extra challenges, such as low muscle tone.
Undeterred, Williamson and her mom, Sandy, started training with coaches at Austin’s RunLab. The duo began signing up for 5Ks and fun runs around town; before long those short races turned into half-marathons. Steadily, Williamson got faster and stronger—and added to her collection of medals. A major blow came in 2021, when her grandmother died; Williamson and her mom kept running through the grief, as a way to honor her. “My grandma always told me that ‘You’re my sunshine,’ ” Williamson told KVUE.
When she finished the Austin Marathon in 2022, becoming the first woman with Down syndrome to compete in the race, the city council proclaimed February 20 of that year as Kayleigh Williamson Day. This April she added the elite Boston Marathon to her résumé. Williamson could’ve stopped there. She’d turned her health around—her Graves’ disease is in remission and she is no longer prediabetic. She has plenty to fill her time. Williamson has modeled for Adidas and written a children’s book in addition to exploring athletic pursuits like swimming, basketball, and the martial art Krav Maga. Still, she set her sights on completing the New York City Marathon, a bucket list achievement for any runner. No one was prouder than Sandy, who chronicles her daughter’s accomplishments on social media. “When Kayleigh Williamson was born, I was told I would be lucky if she walked before she was 5—if ever,” Sandy wrote. “She has never allowed what anyone thought she could or could not do define what she does.”
On Sunday night, Williamson crossed the finish line in Central Park with tears streaming down her face. She is one of only a few runners with Down syndrome—and possibly the only female runner with Down syndrome—to achieve the feat. (Congratulations are also in order for Daniel Chaplin, who finished this year; Chris Nikic, who ran in 2021; and Jimmy Jenson, who was the first to finish, in 2013.)
Though Williamson had been in motion for ten hours, nine minutes, and eleven seconds, she still had the energy to hustle down the stretch. A video of the moment promptly went viral. Sandy, who ran alongside her, later told reporters that her daughter had danced her way through New York, shimmying every time she heard music. “I am a diva,” Williamson said. “I did a victory dance at the finish line.”
After a few days of well-earned rest, she’s back at it: Williamson, who dead lifts 155 pounds, is getting ready for a powerlifting competition this weekend. What’s your excuse?