ROME, Ga. -- John Crowley, an occupational therapist in Rome, Ga., believes in the reincarnation of race medals.
"The medal was earned in a difficult race and someone is recognizing they've gone through a difficult time, and in that, have shown a lot of strength," he said.
The medals piled on his desk are now headed for bigger feats of strength: the fight for life.
Crowley is the one-man Georgia chapter of Medals4Mettle, a non-profit group that accepts earned race medals and gives them to hospital patients. (They do not accept extra race medals from race directors. They must come from an athlete who completed the event.)
Word about the tiny non-profit is racing through the Georgia running community.
"My struggle going through these races is very temporary," Shelby Jones said. "But they have a longer struggle than I do." She set a goal to run 35 races before she turned 35 years old. She recently reached the goal with a heavy box of medals to prove it.
Kathryn Honderd carries her own bag of marathon and triathlon medals to donate to the cause. "You can only keep so much stuff. You have the memories sin your head, you can look at pictures, so a medal is just another item," she said.
Crowley adds my race medals to his pile and goes to work. He'll put special Medals4Mettle ribbons on them and shine them before delivery .
Two days later we meet up at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Scottish Rite. It's a busy day inside the rehabilitation room.
Trina throws a heavy ball with her daughter Abby. "She was a very athletic, active 12-year-old girl until about two weeks ago. She started showing stroke-like symptoms. So, now she's here for rehab," she explains.
Trina jumped at the chance to have her daughter participate in the medal give-away. "She's really competitive and loves trophies and ribbons," she says.
And Abby's huge smile reflected that as we held up dozens of ribbon for her choice. She could have picked any them, but fate pushes her to a shiny silver one. Mine. From the Mercedes marathon in Birmingham, Alabama 2012.
And, so, we both wear huge grins. A shared runner's high.
After a stroke and seizures, Hannah is far away from home. "There are good days and bad days, but she never stops fighting," her father says.
This is a good day. Hannah chooses a huge, shiny Mickey Mouse medal from a Disney marathon. Moments later, her dad is urging her to lift the big medal up as part therapy, part camera pose. I asked why he thought Hannah would benefit from the medal donation.
"She's a girl and she likes bling," he said with a loud chuckle.
We make our way around the room, exchanging medals for smiles. "Is this real?!" one boy asks as he stares at the spaceship- shaped race medal around his neck.
One boy makes it very real.
Across the gym, he sits in a wheelchair without a smile. He's in pain. "My legs. It hurts," I heard him say as we walked closer.
"Can you stand up and get a medal?" his therapist said.
Today, he just can't. He cries and moans, distraught. Then, we make a deal: "How about TWO medals?" I suggest.
He reaches for his mother's hands and pulls himself to his feet. He ducks his head so I can place the medal around his neck. It's a strange kind of magic. He shares a big smile. "Thank you!" he says in a chipper voice, staring between the medal and the group of volunteers working their way around the room. Then, the magic passes, and he collapses back into his wheelchair with a sigh.
The nearby hospital hallways are filled with a new sound: the clinking of race medals -- earned once, and then again.
Every runner knows a shiny medal can't heal a broken body. But when a length of a hallway seems like a marathon, when getting out of the chair seems impossible, it can heal a broken spirit.