GERMANTOWN -- It was a downer for Tommy Gerlach to have to watch his friends play football or basketball or baseball and not be able to participate -- but now, he is flying high, thanks to a sport he's able to embrace, and a father's love and commitment.
"The adrenaline rush you get with racing motocross -- you can't beat with anything else. Jumping is probably one of the craziest feelings in the world," Tommy Gerlach said.
16-year-old Gerlach, who reaches the finish line of his sophomore year at Germantown High School on Thursday, June 9th, graduated from dirt bikes when he was nine years old. These days, Gerlach travels all over the Midwest -- winning motocross races.
At first, there was a learning curve.
"The gate dropped and I was super pumped. I was third off the start, and in about three seconds I was in last, and throughout the race, I got lapped by every other racer in the class. I was the happiest rider out there -- just to be there. I didn't realize how bad I was doing, but it was still a lot of fun just to be there. The first time I raced and I didn't get lapped, we came back in the pits and we were all cheering," Gerlach said.
To fully appreciate those words, you have to understand the difficult challenge Gerlach has had to overcome.
"I was born with a condition called nystagmus. It means that my eyes wiggle back and forth, and I turn my head to still them. It's a genetic thing. On my mother's side, the majority of my family members have it," Gerlach said.
Growing up, playing sports involving a ball wasn't an option -- so Gerlach turned to motocross. Even that is no stroll in the park when one can see clearly!
"When the gate drops, the starting line atmosphere is very nerve-wracking. The condition that he has, nystagmus, makes it even worse. Your eyes wiggle even more. When he's behind riders, it's very hard for him to judge distances in the chaos of a motocross start," Tom Gerlach, Gerlach's father said.
One of the reasons Tom Gerlach races is so that he can spend less time worrying about his son. But make no mistake, when it comes to motocross, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
"I had a thousand horsepower Mustang and I drag raced with a wheelie bar and a parachute. This blows that away by 10 times. The excitement of 40 guys on a gate trying to get through one corner and the race may last eight to 10 minutes and it's total adrenaline, there are times when I pull off the track and I can't breathe for 15 to 20 minutes. I can't even feel my hands," Tom Gerlach said.
But father and son feel a strong bond.
"It's really brought us close together. A lot of kids don't ride, and I have the blessing to be able to race with my dad," Tommy Gerlach said.
"The first time we rode was probably one of the funnest times as a father -- to ride down a trail with my son," Tom Gerlach said.
There's also a friendly rivalry.
"The majority of the time, to be able to pass him on the track and look back at him, I really am blessed to have a father like that. When I was just starting, he used to always be faster than me, because I wasn't very good on the bike yet. But now, it's come to be that I'm a little bit faster than him and he sometimes doesn't like to agree with that. But I can take him anytime," Tommy Gerlach said.
"We both have grown in the sport together. I had a faster pace in the beginning because of my prior experience riding, and he had a time in the past two years where I have trouble keeping up with Tommy and he'll beat me pretty regularly," Tom Gerlach said.
Tom and Tommy are having a blast, but motocross involves risk, so it isn't easy on Loni, the wife and mother.
"She enjoys hearing the results. She does not enjoy the track. It's way too nerve-wracking for her. She finds no en
They'll be as careful as possible going 30 to 50 miles-per-hour -- but there's no stopping the Gerlach's when it comes to motocross.
There is no corrective surgery for Tommy Gerlach's eye condition, but when it comes to perspective, the 16-year-old has a clear vision.
"I'm happy with what I'm doing -- and I wouldn't have it any other way. I really believe that God put us here for a reason, and we gotta do the best with what we got and keep pushing forward," Gerlach said.
When Tommy Gerlach isn't racing or in school, he plays the guitar.