“He’s a kid that’s fought the odds:” Running becomes an outlet for boy who has been through a lot

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NASHOTAH (WITI) -- A high school runner in cross country or track is trained to focus on the finish line -- but for one area standout, where he started and what he acquired along the way are just as important.

There are no shortcuts in running.

Mike Harder and his Oconomowoc High School teammates know that to be at their best during the cross country and track seasons, they need to put in the work now.

Harder, in particular, knows how to keep pushing.

"He's a kid that's fought the odds," Harder's father, Derek Harder said.

The Harders learned when Mike Harder was getting ready for kindergarten that he had problems hearing, so he got bilateral hearing aids.

Unfortunately, those aids could only do so much, as Mike's hearing only got worse.

The decline continued through a series of other health problems, and Mike needed and received a cochlear implant at the age of 12.

"I think it's been the greatest gift for him," Derek Harder said.

Mike could hear, but he was self-conscious about having the implant...and about his weight. He realized he was a 200-pound middle schooler.

"Those were challenging times in my life. I'll tell you it was probably the lowest in my lifetime, because I was bullied because of my cochlear implant and being overweight," Mike Harder said.

"He said to me 'I really don't want to go back to school looking like this,'" Derek Harder said.

The summer before seventh grade, Mike started pounding out the miles -- slowly at first, but with determination.

"I used running as a way to slim down that weight, and to come back and hopefully not get bullied again," Mike Harder said.

Gradually, Mike Harder put distance between himself and any tormentors, and he kept the weight off.

He decided he liked the empowerment running brought him -- and now, he's a two-time scholar athlete heading towards his senior year with a realistic dream of competing in college.

"Mike is a really good runner. He is a really good role model for anyone -- because he is such a hard worker,"

Mike Harder doesn't wear his cochlear implant in races because of sweat and possible contact issues -- so he relies on teammates like John McVey to help him count down to the start. By now he knows that there are eyes on him.

"All those things that happened in my life, those are good things, because it pushes me to where I am now, and it's going to push me even further and not only that -- it's going to inspire other guys who are much, much younger and they want to do the same thing, but they just don't know how to do it, and I want to be there to help those people find their place," Mike Harder said.

Receiving a cochlear implant is not an inexpensive ordeal.

Harder's family is into this for well over $100,000 out-of-pocket, and yet the procedure and what has followed has brought Mike out of the woods and into the sunshine.

"It's shocking to me that I came this far, actually, because I was so scared back in sixth and seventh grade. I never thought I would want to come out and be with people because I was scared of what they would think of me. But I learned over time, you've got to push out of that shell," Mike Harder said.

"I remember that shy little kid that...no I couldn't be prouder because he was that shy, timid kid that you were heartbroken...and yeah -- there he is," Derek Harder said.

Mike Harder will run cross country in the fall and track in the spring.

He says he looks forward to improving his times and earning a shot at running in college.

As for his hearing, multiple sounds in a crowd setting continue to give him the most trouble -- but Mike says he's working hard to improve in that area as well.