Doctors told Mark Fowler it was just a matter of time before he lost his son, born with a potentially fatal lung infection.
Now, 31 years later, that son will be taking part in his first Special Olympics USA games this week.
"He just never gave up," Fowler said of his son, Andrew, who spent months in the hospital after he was born three months premature.
On Sunday, Andrew will be among the two dozen Pierce County athletes joining more than 4,000 others from across the country in the national competition in Seattle. The games, which take place every four years, will run through Friday.
Andrew is no stranger to the spotlight. Comcast selected him to be one of four Special Olympics athletes in the state featured in 30-second public service advertisements aired on cable TV channels throughout the region.
In the weeks leading up to his first national competition, Andrew, a courtesy clerk at the Gig Harbor Fred Meyer, evolved into something of a local celebrity, making appearances at events to meet and greet fans and showcase his track and field skills.
"It was a lot of fun," he said on getting the chance to sign autographs. "I've never done that in my life. I want to keep doing it."
It's a chance his family never thought he'd have.
A preemie, Andrew was born with a virus that infected his underdeveloped lungs. Mark Fowler flew with his son to a hospital in Boise for further treatment and watched as he was connected to what looked like every machine in sight.
Andrew later returned to Mary Bridge Children's Hospital in Tacoma, where doctors told the family it just was a matter of time before he died. Instead, after three months in the hospital, Andrew slowly began to improve and eventually was able to live machine-free.
Today, Andrew has inflammatory lung disease, emphysema and is developmentally delayed, but that hasn't kept him from athletics.
In 2009, he took part in Metro Parks Tacoma sports programs that included basketball and golf. In the Special Olympics, he'll compete the long jump and hopes to stay undefeated in the 100- and 50-meter walks.
After nearly 10 years in competition, Andrew has accumulated dozens of medals, his father said. This year is the first time he'll compete in the national games and hopes to move up to the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi next summer.
"I’m going to try and work as hard as I can and try and make it to the Worlds," Andrew said.
He will have no shortage of fans supporting him along the way, said Mark, who plans to bring a crowd to support Andrew throughout the competition in Seattle.
Reflecting back on where his son was 31 years ago, Mark said it is a challenge to explain the joy and excitement that comes from seeing where Andrew is now.
"I am so happy for him," he said. "I coach him, so I spend a lot of time with him, training and taking him to things. Proud as hell, that’s all I can say."
Meredith Spelbring: 253-597-8509, firstname.lastname@example.org