On his 33rd birthday, Tom Preston was challenged by his neighbors, Phil and Margaret Corrigan, to count his footsteps for a distance of 133 miles.
Tom, with a pedometer in his right shoe, began walking the distance on Durham’s sidewalks and grass-walks.
Five months – and 464,108 footsteps – later, the Corrigans congratulated Tom with a dinner at Olive Garden.
“We weren’t sure at first whether Tom would even like the idea of (counting his steps),” Margaret said. “Then we were just surprised at how quickly he got it done!”
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Tom, however, was just getting started.
“I told them, ‘What’s my next challenge?’” he said.
That was two years ago. This past August, as Tom counted his 5 millionth footstep on his way home one afternoon, he found his sister, Catherine Preston, along with two dozen of his neighbors, waiting for him in the street. They held up a banner that read, “Go Tom!”
Tom, 35, may not realize it, but his sister and caretaker, Catherine, 38, is counting on him to continue logging his footsteps. She sees the activity as healthy for Tom, who has Down syndrome.
“I am still his sister, and the difficult thing is that I play a mom role,” Catherine said. “How does Tom be as individual as he can, and how do I support that?”
Learning to crawl
Tom was born in Houston, the third of four children. From the outset, his parents saw Down syndrome as a challenge they would meet head-on.
To teach Tom to crawl, his parents and siblings would often move about the house on their hands and knees. Catherine still remembers the day when the whole family was on all fours and the infant Tom appeared from around a corner, crawling for the first time.
“One of my more recent lessons has been how do I not do that,” Catherine said. “We let our kids fall. We let that happen so our kids can learn to walk on their own. I have to let Tommy do that.”
As a teenager, Catherine would go easy when playing games with Tom.
“I was worried about crushing his spirit if I hammered him,” she said.
Their mother believed the only way Tom would improve was if Catherine challenged him more. So during ping-pong matches, Catherine began playing more fiercely, and discovered her brother would rise to the occasion.
“Tom would enjoy making me run from side-to-side, line-to-line,” she said. “My mom said, ‘See? He can do it.’”
One day while out grocery shopping with his family, Tom saw two men outside the store playing chess. Tom asked if he could stay and watch.
“Usually we’d say, ‘Let them play… you can’t just walk in on strangers,’” Catherine said.
When the two men noticed Tom, they reset the chessboard. Catherine’s mother advised the men that Tom had played chess before. They smiled and offered him a seat. Later, when Catherine and her mother returned with their groceries, they found Tom’s face to be a picture of concentration, and the smiles gone from the men’s faces.
“He’s good,” one of the men said.
The family would move twice during Tom and Catherine’s childhood: first to Princeton, New Jersey, to escape Texas during the 1986 oil glut, then south to Vero Beach, Florida, where Tom would finish high school.
Tom’s brothers, Marshall and Josh, left home to join the Air Force and Navy respectively, and Catherine departed for North Carolina to earn her undergraduate degree at Duke University.
“Tom would say, ‘I want to go to college,’” Catherine said. “And my mother would tell him, ‘You will in your own time.’”
But the family’s foundation would continue to change: The parents separated while Catherine was completing her master’s in theology in Ohio. She returned to Florida and was living with her mother and Tom when a job offer with the Duke Catholic Center arrived. As the day of her interview approached, Tom and Catherine’s mother fell ill. She died three weeks later from liver cancer.
“I was new at death, and so was Tom,” Catherine said. “He didn’t like that Jesus took mom.”
Brothers Marshall and Josh each offered to take custody of Tom. Extended family members advised Catherine to “get on with her life.” She decided to accept the Duke job – and brought Tom with her to Durham.
“It takes a really long time to form deep friendships,” Catherine said. “I learned that it takes double – even triple – that amount of time for Tom.”
Tom’s shoe pedometer eventually broke after too many footsteps, so he began using a smartphone app to track his progress. He has counted his footsteps on walks by himself, walks in the company of neighbors and, occasionally, walks with Catherine.
“Sometimes she’s a little bit lazy to come out,” Tom said.
Tom is now closing in on 6 million footsteps, a challenge presented to him by the Rev. Brad Heckathorne, associate director at Duke Catholic Center. Heckathorne has promised Tom a sit-down meal at Red Robin or Olive Garden once he has reached his goal.
“It works with Tom because he loves to eat at those places,” Heckathorne said, “so he’ll do anything – certainly walk and exercise – to get there.”
Tom wears a blue Star Wars T-shirt as he and Catherine walk the dusty, crushed stone surface of the East Campus trail, a magnet for pedestrians and joggers.
“Nice dog,” Tom commented as he passed a man walking a pit bull.
When asked if Tom might ever get bored counting his footsteps, Catherine smiled and took a moment to answer.
“I have worried about that,” she said.
Phil Corrigan, not so much.
“Something I’ve noticed about Tom and maybe all the Prestons,” he said, “is that they have a pretty infectious way of getting enthusiastic about things … all of a sudden counting steps is an exciting part of life.”
Would Tom ever consider counting the stars in Durham’s night sky?
“The right answer is ‘no’,” Tom said.
One lap around the East Campus trail?
Tom consulted his phone.