Four special medals hang in Homewood Middle School sixth-grade student Aidan Cockrell’s bedroom. They serve as a reminder of what Aidan describes as one of the most awesome things he’s ever done—participate in the 2017 World Dwarf Games. He earned golds for basketball (his favorite sport) and volleyball, and silvers for soccer and floor hockey. He also competed in table tennis and track and field, but it’s obvious that playing in the Games isn’t the only thing that made this experience so extraordinary.
“Socially, for Aidan, this kind of thing is a necessity,” Alecia Cockerell, Aidan’s mom, explains. While Aidan is outgoing and likable, the fact that he was born with a form of dwarfism known as achondroplasia means that his peers can’t always relate to him the way that other little people can. Being a part of the Games, held this past Aug. 4-12, meant that Aidan could play with people who understood him like no others. However, getting there proved to be challenging.
The Road to Ontario
First, Aidan needed a coach to not only train him, but familiarize himself with the rules of the Games. As a single working mother, Alecia knew she couldn’t do this solo. She found the help they needed in Aidan’s fourth-grade flag football coach Owen Ferguson, a Homewood High School graduate and senior at Birmingham-Southern College.
“His mom called me last fall and asked if I could train Aidan for the World Dwarf Games. I had no clue how big of a deal it was, but I said yes. I train a lot of kids in Homewood, so I wasn’t nervous,” Owen says. He describes Aidan as “hard-working, competitive and coachable,” making him an ideal athlete. They met once or twice a week to work on basketball, soccer, general strength and conditioning. The bond these two formed made a
“I like how passionate Owen is,” Aidan says. “One of my favorite memories is when Owen had his fraternity brothers paint their chests and cheer for our flag football game.” Owen’s fraternity, Sigma Chi, also helped Aidan with another big hurdle in order to make it to the Games—fundraising.
“My fraternity decided to do an Olympic-themed event for Aidan to help raise money,” Owen explains. “We had different organizations sign up and make teams, and they competed against each other in various sports. We raised over $1,000 in donations—it was a great turnout.”
The Cockrells needed approximately $7,500 to make the trip a reality. Alecia feels thankful for the support they received through other fundraising efforts, such as the “3 on 3” basketball contest put on through Homewood Parks and Recreation, T-shirts sold on Etsy and their GoFundMe account. She also began embroidering and sewing on the side to earn extra money.
Alecia, who describes herself as a “protective, fun and emotional” mother, discovered another unexpected way to raise money after hearing local radio disc jockeys say some inconsiderate things about little people on the radio. “I wrote them a scathing email,” Alecia recalls. In response, the station invited Aidan on the show to apologize and promote his quest to the Games. More financial donations soon followed.
The Game-Changing Trip
After successfully raising enough money, Aidan, Alecia and Owen flew to Ontario. Aidan was in awe of the new environment. “I liked seeing the differences between America and Canada—like the speed limit signs are in the metric system and the same trees we use as Christmas trees are everywhere as part of the natural landscape,” he says.
Of course, playing sports was why they were there—and it didn’t disappoint. There were adult and junior teams carefully chosen based on height and ability so that they were as evenly matched as possible. Aidan’s team, the New York Towers, competed well together.
“The Games exceeded my expectations,” Owen says. “I was surprised with how competitive the playing field was. I would put some of the athletes I saw against some of the best athletes in the world skill wise. The only thing different between them and the other athletes is that they are shorter.”
Encountering famous little people, such as the Roloffs from Little People Big World, YouTuber Dwarf Mamba and Pirates of Caribbean actor Martin Klebba, added to their excitement. However, meeting Harlem Globetrotter player Jahmani Swanson, stands out as a highlight for Aidan. Seeing the successes of fellow little people clearly gives Aidan inspiration. “I think I want to be a Globetrotter now when I grow up” he says.
The relationships Aidan developed with the other athletes might be the most amazing part of this trip, though. Alecia jokes that he started making friends the second they walked into the hotel. “I was standing in line to check in when I turned around to see that Aidan had his suitcase opened. He was pulling out his jersey to see if he was on the same team as the boy behind us,” she recalls.
By the end of the week, nobody wanted to go home. Aidan and his friends found themselves hugging and crying the night before they left. Alecia fondly remembers how an older role model reached out to the boys in that moment and told them that he’d probably cry too when he returned to his room. Then he told them how special each one of them was. “These are the kind of friendships and experiences he never would’ve had if we hadn’t made this trip,” Alecia says.
While life is back to normal, Aidan admits that he feels like a local celebrity thanks to all of the attention he’s received. For example, he was overwhelmed after being a part of the famous YouTuber, Logan Paul’s, videos. Some people have even asked for his autograph. (Aidan also has his own YouTube channel. Check him out at “Mr Stealyogirl” on youtube.com.)
Owen is adding to that attention by working on a documentary about Aidan. “I want to show people how inspirational Aidan’s life is,” Owen explains. “I don’t think many people know what he really has been through.”
Aidan can also boast “guest speaker” to his resume after sharing his experience with the Element Student Ministry group at Trinity United Methodist Church this August. The Minister to Students, Robert Sturdivant, already knew Owen through the church and admired the connection between he and Aidan. When Robert was looking for someone to share a story relating to the “Quality Performance” theme at an event, Aidan immediately came to mind.
“Aidan is a driven and passionate student who demonstrates to others the importance of focusing first on God and community, and allowing these relationships drive your heart and goals,” Robert says. “As Aidan said, ‘You won’t regret committing yourself to your community. With them behind you, you can persevere through anything.’”
Busting onto the Big Screen
Aidan’s star status will soar even higher when he makes his feature film debut next year. He was recently cast in Trading Paint, an upcoming movie about a veteran race car driver and his son. Well-known celebrities John Travolta and Shania Twain will also be in the film. After initially being cut by one of the casting crew, Aidan and Alecia felt very disappointed. However, the director, Karzan Kader, thought Aidan was a perfect fit for the movie and called him back. “It makes me feel very hopeful for the future of little people in the entertainment industry,” Alecia says. “There are still those who can see past the disability to the true potential of a child.”