Tichelle Florence is tough.
The 26-year-old Covington woman has Freidrich’s ataxia, a wasting neurological disease that left her confined to a wheelchair with no hope of walking again — until she met physical trainer Kellye Williams in a grocery parking lot.
For the past year, the pair has worked to get Florence out of her wheelchair and back into life.
Saturday morning, Florence took a big step in that direction, completing the Covington Police Department Fuzz Run.
She certainly didn’t run. But she completed the 1-mile route in slightly more than three hours. She got sick on the way, having eaten too late in the morning for such a grueling course. But she made it, finishing to a rousing cheer from fellow participants.
She started her day that way, too, as she was allowed to begin 15 minutes before everyone else.
“There’s a really neat story at the Fuzz Run this year. Tichelle Florence is here,” organizer CPD Capt. Ken Malcom said into his microphone. He urged participants to line the start line to cheer for her. Hundreds did so.
“It’s all right, you’re ready, don’t be nervous,” Williams said as she and Florence’s fiancé, Jeremy Thompson, each grabbed an arm and helped Florence from her wheelchair. A CPD officer took the lead on a Segway while another followed the whole way in a golf car with blue lights.
“We got this,” Thompson said as the crowd cheered.
Was she nervous?
“Yes,” she said, smiling.
Had she been working hard?
“Very,” she said.
And then she didn’t want to talk anymore. She had a long way to go.
“You’re doing awesome,” Rodney Johnson shouted from the roadside. “You’re an inspiration for, like, 1,000 people!”
Duane Oblinger of Alpharetta didn’t expect anything like it when he drove down for the race: “I think it’s fantastic. Life is one step at a time.”
For Florence, it certainly is. Each step looked painful, her right ankle curling in and under, often causing her stumble. Williams and Thompson were always there, holding tight, encouraging her.
Florence did her best to smile the whole way, although her discomfort was obvious. She said Thompson kept asking her “Do I feel like a celebrity? I was like, ‘No, I hate it.’”
She gained fame earlier this year when her story reached the national level. She was featured on the Huffington Post website and on “Fox & Friends.”
For Florence, walking again has never been enough. She’s participated in two prior fundraising walking events, with the Fuzz Run by far the longest to date. Williams said she’d walked an outdoor route for a mile with Florence as training for the Fuzz Run, and Florence has made it a mile on the treadmill at Kellye Personal Fitness, Williams’ gym, as well.
“Just keep looking ahead,” Thompson said. “Focus on a spot and get to that spot. You can do it. Just remember, each step is another closer to the finish line.”
Debbi Krisher of the Conyers Police Department Auxiliary just shook her head in admiration: “I think she’s really cool. I heard she’s been working really hard to get here. She’s someone you just have to admire.”