TEXAS — When Sandy Williamson took her baby daughter, Kayleigh, for her first checkup, her heart sank in anticipation of the news she was about to receive.
“I remember the doctor coming in and doing her first checkup, and I had started crying and said ‘you don’t have to tell me, I already know,’” Williamson recalled. “They diagnosed her with Down syndrome the day after she was born that morning.”
The new mom was advised not to keep her baby; rather, Williamson was told to consider placing Kayleigh for adoption or put her in an institution in Baton Rouge.
But Williamson didn’t consider any option other than bringing her daughter home.
“In my senior year of college, we were living on welfare and donations,” Williamson said. “Since that point, she’s just always surpassed what the doctors expected.”
Raising Kayleigh proved to be challenging, especially as concerns about her health continued.
Kayleigh was diagnosed with hypothyroidism and then hyperthyroidism, which are prevalent for Down syndrome individuals. She also had sleep apnea and immune thrombocytopenia — or ITP — a condition in which the blood doesn’t clot normally.
When Kayleigh reached about 215 pounds, doctors gave Williamson the grim warning that things would not end well for her daughter.
“It dawned on me I didn't want my daughter laying in a hospital bed and me apologizing for her for something I could have prevented with a lifestyle change,” said Williamson.
The mother and daughter made health their main mission. The two joined Weight Watchers, and Williamson, who had just finished her first half marathon, encouraged Kayleigh to start running with her.
Kayleigh didn’t look back.
“I lost 80 pounds, it changed my life,” said Kayleigh. “I am a fast runner. I beat [my mom] every day.”
Williamson says once Kayleigh found her stride, her health began improving dramatically.
“With the weight loss she is no longer prediabetic. She no longer has sleep apnea,” said Williamson. “Her Grave’s disease has been in remission for about three years now.”
Kayleigh became the first woman with Down syndrome to complete the Austin Half Marathon in 2017 and has competed in multiple races over the years, including a half marathon in Detroit — Kayleigh’s favorite race to date — and an event in Canada.
“I never doubted she could finish the races,” says Williamson. “I don’t believe that our circumstances should dictate who we become. I think our circumstance becomes a part of who we become. And the true testimony of who you are and your character is what you take of those circumstances and make yourself out of.”
Kayleigh loves the support she receives from other runners and spectators at each race she competes in.
“It makes me feel like I inspire other people a lot,” said Kayleigh.
“It went from me protecting my daughter from the world, to me realizing my daughter can take on the world,” said Williamson. “And as a mother, I'm proud of that.”