Joe Kaczynski 'the glue' that holds his family together

Joe Kaczynski has excelled in every Special Olympics sport he has tried, including gymnastics, softball, basketball, soccer, track and field, cycling and cross-country skiing. Jakob Michael Berr for ESPN

RAMSAU, Austria -- The scar above Joe Kaczynski's nose is mostly faded now but the family can still see it, and his brother John can still remember why the stitches were necessary.

"Whenever I would do something, Joe would often try to mimic me and follow me around to the point when, he was 8 years old, unfortunately I was swinging a softball bat and he was on my backswing," said John, the eldest of Jerry and Mary Kaczynski's three children. "At the time, I felt absolutely horrible about it, but as I've gone through life, I realized that my brother was just trying to keep up with me."

The irony, said John, is that in many ways Joe passed him by a long time ago.

Joe, now 32 and a cross-country skier in his second Special Olympics World Games after competing in track and field in 2003, is a gifted runner who logs as many as 50 training miles a week. On Monday, the Midland, Michigan, native won a gold medal in his division of the 5K with a time of 23 minutes, 55.5 seconds.

But Joe's mind has been on his big brother. Joe dedicated his performance this week to John, calling him his inspiration for John's 10-year battle with a rare form of cancer that required the removal of part of his right lung in December.

"When he went for chemo, it was hard for him," Joe said of his brother. "And when I train and the pain is going through my body, I'm thinking about John and what he felt when he went through it."

John, now 36, received his doctor's permission and traveled to Austria with his parents, fiancée Martha and sister Julia to see Joe compete. He said his brother's sentiments are both appreciated and reciprocal.

"I went through this crucible this past year and I'm happy I can be inspirational to my brother, but if there is anybody who is the inspiring one, it's truly my brother," John said. "He's superhuman in many ways. I tell folks he's overcome incredible odds, and seeing where he is today, it's really a mutual symbiotic relationship of who we are."

'Something is wrong'

The family always thought of Joe as the quiet one, though it started with an inability to express himself.

"Our other children [Julia is the middle child] were speaking well at [age] 2," their father Jerry said. "But we were trying to get Joe to pronounce a word at 3 and a half and I couldn't get him to say it and he got very red in the face trying. I ran up to the bedroom and said to Mary, 'Something is wrong.'"

But while it was determined that Joe had learning disabilities, it was not reflected physically, as the quiet kid excelled in every Special Olympics sport he tried, including gymnastics, softball, basketball, soccer, track and field, cycling and cross-country skiing.

When John began to run longer distances, Joe wanted to try as well. At 8, Joe ran two miles and a neighbor, who knew a little something about running, said he looked like a natural and that he should try four miles.

"I told Joe, 'Tomorrow, we're going to try four miles,' and he panicked," Jerry said. "I said, 'We'll take it real slow two miles, then turn around and come back.' We did that and he said 'That was nothing.'

"One of the issues he has is that he has trouble gauging distances. So when he's running five miles or 10 miles, he has to repeat the same [shorter] distances over and over again."

At 10, Joe was in a 1,500-meter race with all adult runners and stayed with them until the end. When he finished, a volunteer told Joe to run another lap because, as his father recalled, there was no way on earth this little boy was keeping up with these big guys.

Years later, as the same neighbor continued to watch Joe, he questioned why he wasn't on the high school cross-country and track teams. The coach, said Jerry and Mary, helped Joe develop and blossom personally as well as athletically. By his junior year, Joe was the No. 1 runner on the cross-country team and in track, and became the top 800-meter runner in his section of Michigan.

Joe began running track in Special Olympics while still competing for his high school team. In his senior year, he was selected to compete in track at the Special Olympics World Games in Ireland, but he broke his foot competing in an indoor meet, leaving just two and a half weeks to train for Ireland.

Competing in the 3,000 and 5,000 events, Joe was in last place in the 5,000 but closed the gap in the final 100 meters to come away with his second bronze medal.

"When I was 14, I was the star of the family," John said with a laugh. "But when I went to college, my brother was the one who became the runner of the family. I still hear stories today when I run into people from high school who say Joe helped them have successful records those four years.

"I wish I had 10 percent of the athletic ability he does."

So prodigious was Joe as a runner, he often finished as much as 10 to 12 minutes ahead of the second-place finisher in longer races such as the 5,000 meters.

"It wasn't really fair that Joe was always getting the gold, so we talked [officials] into it that if Joe finished in a certain time, he'd be in his own 5K division," Jerry recalled. "And so he wouldn't feel lonely on the podium, he would go up with the Division II athlete and they'd get their gold medals together."

Joe's determination matches his intense training. In 1999, a road race was created in honor of his beloved speech teacher Kate Carney, who died of brain cancer at 35.

"One of his teachers said, 'Boy, wouldn't it be really great if Joe won it for Kate?'" Jerry said. "For two years, he came in second or third. But he trained, and two years later, he won it. All the teachers and my wife were bawling when we saw Joe come around the corner. Then he three-peated."

It made the front page of the local paper.

Five years ago, the family moved to Midland to be close to the Pere Marquette Rail Trail, a 30-mile paved trail between Midland and Clare, Michigan, where Joe could run and cross-country ski. His parents had both skied in their younger years, both coached Special Olympics cross-country skiing and their youngest son once again proved to be natural.

"I still hear stories today when I run into people from high school who say Joe helped them have successful records those four years. I wish I had 10 percent of the athletic ability he does."

John Kaczynski on his brother, Joe

"Skiing is conditioning using different muscles, every part of your body at the same time," Joe said. "Right now I like both sports about the same."

His family marvels at the single-mindedness of his training, over which he takes full control, logging his miles on the road or the NordicTrack and keeping to a strict diet. When the U.S. Special Olympics delegation visited a famous chocolate factory last week, sampling more than 100 different varieties, Joe pretty much laid off.

John describes his brother as having "tunnel vision."

"He is very determined, let's put it that way," John said. "Whether it's athletics or any subject of interest. One year he will try to memorize every [Detroit] Red Wings position and all their statistics; and then, one year, 'Titanic' came out and he had Titanic models and knew every room in the Titanic. Then, for better or worse, he got into politics, so can tell you everything about any politician."

Julia Kaczynski said the last obsession came about for its own specific reason.

"That was because of John," she said of their brother, a political science professor at Saginaw Valley State University who serves as an institutional lobbyist and governmental affairs director while working toward his Ph.D. in higher education administration.

John said he believes Joe's "personal empathy" was one reason he attracted friends and avoided bullying growing up.

"When you're the parent, brother or sister of a special needs individual, you're very protective of them," he said. "Even today unfortunately, you have people in Washington, D.C., who are supposed to be our national leaders and they mock individuals with disabilities. That gives you that fear of what can happen if your brother enters a mainstream athletic competition.

"But to be honest, it was the complete opposite. For the most part, all the kids embraced and supported Joe and he became a role model for other kids to keep up with him."

Count Julia among those who look up to Joe.

"I feel like I've learned most life lessons from Joe," she said. "Patience. Determination. They say Special Olympics is the heartbeat of the world. I think Joe is the heartbeat of our family. He's our glue."

'I'm only thinking about my brother'

It was almost exactly 10 years ago when John went to the doctor with what he was sure was a sport-related shoulder injury from rowing. "I thought it was a torn rotator cuff," he recalled.

Instead, they diagnosed the soft-tissue cancer synovial sarcoma, and removed a grapefruit-sized tumor from his shoulder and a small section in his left lung where the cancer had metastasized.

From the end of 2008 until last May, John was in remission. Then a doctor's visit with what he thought was a respiratory infection detected more metastasis in his right lung.

In October, he ran a half-marathon. In December, doctors removed the lower lobe of his right lung. After getting the go-ahead to travel to Austria for Joe's second World Games, John ran three miles. By June, the same month in which he and Martha will be married and Joe will be his best man, John hopes to run a 10K and he's shooting for a half-marathon by August or September.

In all, he has had 27 high-dose chemo treatments, but doctors told him and his family after this last surgery that they got all of the cancer and the margins were negative. Once again, he is in remission.

Martha attributes it to Joe, recalling the encouragement he gave him during and in between chemo treatments, when John would travel home from Lansing to rest.

John said it was Joe's unflinching support that meant the most to him.

"When your older brother all of a sudden comes home with no eyebrows and eyelashes, it can be disturbing to anybody, but my brother never showed me that he was scared," John said. "He would treat me like every other person, and that's a testament to who he is. He realizes people he might surround himself with might be different than you and I, but he doesn't treat them any differently and he didn't treat me that way.

"The last thing you want is for people to start treating you special. When you're in fighting mode, you want to be viewed as strong and that's the way he treated me. It goes back to that natural empathy he has."

Joe was an alternate to the World Games team until three weeks before the U.S. training camp in Killington, Vermont. There, Dave Bregenzer, the U.S. head coach for cross country, had team members go around the circle and tell a little something about themselves.

"We got to Joe, he starts telling the story about his brother and jaws dropped," Bregenzer said. "He wasn't emotional but he was generating so much emotion. 'Everything I do in my training,' he told us, 'I'm only thinking about my brother.'"

On Monday, in as picturesque a setting as one could imagine, the sun melted the mountain into one big pile of slush and Joe Kaczynski glided by his ecstatic family looking as if all was perfect in the world.

"This view is like a dream, it's almost like wallpaper," Joe said at the finish line, turning around to look at the breathtaking backdrop of the Austrian Alps. "It's the most beautiful scene on the planet.

"My family told me to just be happy and have fun, and I am having fun."

After taking gold for his third World Games medal, he will have the opportunity to add to his cache with the 2.5K final on Friday. And, once again, his family will be there.

"When he came around that final turn, I had my camera on him and he was just smiling," John said. "But that's just the way he always is. My father and I were saying we'd be dying, but Joe looks like he's ready to go dance."

The Kaczynski brothers have told their father that they would like to run a marathon together one day, all three of them.

"I said, 'You'd better hurry,'" Jerry chuckled.

It is clearly the only way they know how.