Josh Melendez has never had his picture on a cereal box. He doesn't hold any world records. In fact, the 16-year-old from Wesley Chapel struggled to make his high school cross-country team.

But on Saturday morning, when the gun sounds to start the 32nd annual Gasparilla Distance Classic, the high school junior will be hoping to finish.

"I'm just going out there to do the best that I can do," said Melendez, a student at Wiregrass Ranch High. "I am going to push myself."

Melendez, who had a stroke at birth, has cerebral palsy. After years of physical therapy, the Hillsborough County youth started walking, then running.

"It has been just great experience for him," said his mother, LeeAnn. "Running has really boosted his self-confidence."

Melendez is a member of the BlazeSports Club, an athletic team for physically challenged athletes, operated by the Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation Department.

"It is an outstanding organization," said Kelly Mione of the Florida Chapter of the Challenged Athletes Foundation. "Our philosophy is that sports are a great way kids, especially those that are physically disabled, can build self esteem and make them feel part of something that is much bigger than themselves."

The Tarpon Springs-based CAF helps with monetary and logistical support. Since October 2006, the organization has raised more than $800,000 for athletes competing in the Gasparilla Distance Classic, St. Anthony's Triathlon and Ironman 70.3.

Mione said he expects more than 70 physically challenged athletes to compete in Saturday's 15K and 5K races.

"It has taken me a while to work up to this distance," said Ronnie Dickson, a 21-year-old St. Petersburg College student who will run on a prosthetic leg. "I am really focused now and want to see how much I can accomplish

Dickson was born with Trevor's disease, which forced him to have his leg amputated at age 17.
"Running was a way for me to move on with my life," said Dickson, a Tampa resident and avid rock climber.

Dickson ran last year's Gasparilla 5K on an artificial leg that was designed for walking.
"It was like going fishing with a stick with a line attached to it compared to using a real fishing pole," he said. "It didn't work very well."

The CAF helped Dickson get a new prosthesis, one similar to the artificial leg used by South African runner Oscar Pistorius, who nearly made it to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

"This leg is a lot lighter and was actually designed for running," Dickson said. "I am really excited about getting out there and seeing what I can do."

Saturday's race marks the first time in 15 years that elite level wheelchair racers will compete. In the mid 1990s, the Gasparilla was the second largest wheelchair race in the United States. But lack of commercial sponsorship caused the race to be discontinued.

But the Burlington, N.C., based LabCorp has revived the race, bringing in world-class competitors Krige Schabor, a Paralympic medal winner nominated for an ESPY Award in 2007, and Mark Ledo, a two-time Boston Marathon winner and top finisher in last year's 15K.

Also competing is Sarah Reinersten, who in 2005 became the first woman to complete the Ironman World Championship on a prosthetic leg. Reinersten missed the bike cutoff in 2004, but bounced back the following year to finish what is widely hailed as the sport's toughest endurance race.

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