iStock/HalfpointOn a clear November day in Charlotte, North Carolina, Jordan van Druff had opened up a long lead against the best 13- and 14-year-old distance runners in the South. As he descended the final hill of the five-kilometer race, a figure with long, wild blond hair emerged behind him. This runner accelerated, eyes on Jordan’s back.
“That’s a girl. That’s a girl,” said one of the coaches.
Her name was Amaris Tyynismaa. She was 13 years old and lithe, dressed in bright pink and orange. Her strides seemed to get longer and easier the faster she ran. Strangest of all, she was smiling, though distance running is an exercise in agony. Several of the boys she passed cheered her on.
When she crossed the line, twelve seconds behind Jordan and solidly in front of everyone else, she looked over at the clock: 16:57. It was one of the fastest times in the country among high school girls in 2014—except Amaris was still in middle school. In fact, she had only started running competitively the year before.
Her coaches believe Amaris, now 15, has the talent to be a college champion, maybe even an Olympian. They are fully aware that such talk about a runner so young is risky. Ankles and shins break down, motivation fades, the body transforms. Amaris, though, has other challenges to contend with.
When Amaris was three years old, her parents would sometimes find her on the floor, the muscles in her body clenched, her eyes wide open and her face red from holding her breath. After a few minutes, she’d get up and continue playing as if nothing had happened.
After years of consultations, tests, and therapies, a doctor diagnosed her with Tourette syndrome, or TS.
Despite pop-culture representations of TS as a swearing disease, Amaris, like 90 percent of people with Tourette’s, never uncontrollably shouts offensive things. Instead, she experiences irresistible urges to move parts of her body in very specific motions, and sometimes to make little noises in her throat—to tic, as it’s called. A few years ago, the tics were so overwhelming they would jolt her right out of her desk. “It’s like a little evil person on your shoulder and they’re telling you to do stuff, and you have to try to fight them,” she says.
When no one was looking at school, Amaris would pop her hip out over and over again, or stretch her mouth as wide as it could go, or jerk her neck to the side. Most of the time, though, she had to put on her best behavior. By the end of the school day, she’d be beat.
“I would get in my mom’s car and just be so exhausted and upset,” Amaris says. “I’d throw a tantrum. I’d do all the tics. I’d cry.”
Things didn’t begin to change until the third grade, when her father, Mike, an Air Force pilot, was posted to the Royal Air Force base in Lakenheath, England. At Feltwell Elementary School, Amaris hid her tics as best she could.
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Then Amaris’ mother, Kristen, suggested that she join the village soccer team. Amaris enjoyed the game and was good at it, but more than that, she discovered that her TS could be forgotten for a time. When the coach put her in at midfield, a position that requires constant running, she hardly ticked at all.
The sense of control was so unfamiliar, so invigorating, that she never wanted it to end. “I got a freedom feeling on that field,” she says.
Some athletes with TS attribute near-magical powers to their condition. Tim Howard, the goalkeeper of the 2014 U.S. World Cup soccer team, says that TS has given him vision and reflexes that other players simply don’t have. One reason is that people with Tourette’s also tend to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (Amaris included). They need to repeat behaviors until they do it just right.
New research out of the University of Nottingham shows that the brains of TS patients are physically different from everyone else’s, transformed by years of operating under much greater than normal resistance and better at controlling the body.
Neurologists at the Tourette Syndrome Association aren’t ready to embrace a connection between TS and superior athleticism. They are more comfortable saying that people with TS often see their symptoms subside when they’re playing sports or otherwise engaged in something that focuses their attention away from the urge to tic.
Soccer quieted the noise in Amaris’ head. After taking up soccer, Amaris began to tic less off the field. She did better in school. In her last game in England, she scored three goals and the other kids carried her around on their shoulders. And then her family moved to Alabama.
Her tics intensified with the stress and anxiety of being relocated to a new base, a new house, a school with no friends. But England had taught her something. She decided to join two soccer teams and a swim team.
Soon, Mike and Kristen began to hear tales of athletic feats that seemed impossible. Specifically, their sixth-grader had run a mile at school in well under six minutes.
There was a regulation track on the base and so one hot Alabama day they took her out there and let her run. The first lap she finished at a pretty good clip. “I wasn’t sure she could hold it,” Mike says. But then she went faster, and then faster, and finished in 5:36.
“That’s when we realized she was pretty good,” Mike says.
The timing couldn’t have been better. Soccer was starting to feel like too much for Amaris. On her last team, she was by far the youngest and would get so panicky about what the other girls would say about her play that she lost the pleasure and much of the benefit of the sport. And swimming was too lonely; team-bonding is harder when you’re underwater all the time.
Running, on the other hand, felt right to her. “It’s my jam,” she likes to say. She never looks as if she’s trying to go fast. You have to focus on the scenery behind her to appreciate how much distance she’s eating up. She is balanced at all times, each side of her putting in exactly the same amount of work at precisely alternating intervals. She seems to be in the air more than she is on the ground.
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She told me about a revelatory practice session. “It was a really hard workout,” she said, “and at the end we had to do two 400-meter intervals. I was running and I was just so happy. I don’t know what it was, it was just easy. And while I ran, I was yelling, ‘I’m in a state of grace!’”
Amaris runs 35 miles each week, high-quality long distance runs punctuated with uphill climbs and sprints and some strength training. Says Kevin Madden, her coach at Montgomery Catholic, “She just finished her freshman year and she has 14 state championships. It’s mind-boggling.”
At meets, Amaris can always be found in the immediate proximity of at least one member of her team. She has had friends, but she’s never been so close to such a large group of people. She calls them her family, and they treat her no differently than anyone else.
But she is different. She’s one of the best young runners in the country, which means she is increasingly being gawked at and analyzed. At one cross-country meet, a coach remarked that someone should get her a sandwich. Tourette syndrome has forced Amaris to use up all kinds of extra calories.
This kind of attention would be discomfiting for any teenager. But studies have shown that when people with TS feel anxious, excited, stressed, or alone—emotions that often accompany fame and elite competition—their tics get more severe.
Amaris’ response has been to blend in as much as she can. More than anything else, she fears being thought of as weird, or different. She spends a lot of time watching makeup tutorials on the web, and takes an endearingly conspicuous interest in boys.
She hasn’t ticked noticeably in months, and she thinks she’s beaten Tourette syndrome. But the brain doesn’t miraculously change. “The OCD has surfaced and taken over,” Kristen says.
Amaris still washes her hands until they crack open, although not as often as she used to. After she finished Elie Wiesel’s Night, she couldn’t stop talking about the Holocaust for weeks. Sometimes, Kristen says, things consume her.
When I asked Amaris about how she deals with the mounting expectations surrounding her running, she was characteristically upbeat. “Some people’s bodies don’t change that much, but other people’s bodies do, and it’s what God wants to happen to people,” she says. “So who knows? Things happen.” Amaris had a growth spurt last year, in which she grew about four inches and gained 15 pounds.
Her parents aren’t worried about where her athletic career ends up, either. They are afraid the demands that accompany becoming one of the best runners in the country might overwhelm her.
At the first outdoor meet in the 2015 season, Amaris was running 1,600 meters against a group of girls that included Kaitlin York, one of the only people in the state who can keep up with her. For the first two laps, Kaitlin matched Amaris nearly stride for stride.
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On the last lap, Kaitlin dropped back nine seconds, and the rest of the field trailed even farther. Any sign of effort had subsided from Amaris’s face. She was in her own world. Her former coach at Montgomery Catholic, John Terino, who no longer coaches at the school, calls this expression “the happiness of crossing the earth under her own power and control.” Amaris remains the most talented runner he’s ever coached, he says.
On the ride home, we passed a department store, and Amaris asked Mike if she could have a look around. Inside, she weaved her way through the women’s clothing.
She fixed on one woodland green knit top with an overlong tail that features nickel-sized holes in a regular pattern.
“This one is so weird, I like it.”
Mike asked about a T-shirt with a jeweled, mustachioed skull.
“No,” she said. “Ugh.” Several wraps, skirts, and blouses all got the thumbs down.
Amaris kept returning to the top with the holes. She held it up.
“It’s so weird,” she said, finally. “It’s so me.”
Editor’s note: Amaris is ranked No. 1 nationally in indoor track for freshmen. She placed second in the New Balance Freshman Mile in June, a national competition, running the mile in five minutes and six-tenths second. Says Madden, “Her time was very good, but it wasn’t her best, which speaks to the immense potential she has. She’s still a little girl and has a long way to run.”