Tim Lupton-Stegall probably had no business being in the middle of all his friends, skating effortless as if he never missed a single practice while wearing a smile as big and rounded as the Polar Ice rink he was so gracefully scooting around.

But he just couldn't help himself.

"I'd skate all day if practice was all day," he said. "I never want to stop again."

Here is a 23-year-old Ahwatukee Foothills resident who was diagnosed as autistic at the age of 3, was in a car accident at age 17 that left him with blood on the brain, a broken neck, the loss of his spleen and appendix along with having a titanium rod in his left leg, and he just got over eight rounds of chemotherapy.

He had every right to be anything but what he was on this day - smiling, ecstatic and (as always) positive.

Lupton-Stegall was especially happy on this day. Not only did he get a chance to skate with his team for the first time since last season, he was recognized by the Arizona Chapter of Special Olympics as the Most Inspirational Athlete for the Special Olympics Winter Games, which was in Flagstaff this weekend.

"This award means a lot to me," he said. "It's been an up and down hill battle for me."

Despite having a lifetime's worth of potential setbacks in his relatively short time in this world, Lupton-Stegall has taken it all in stride

He speaks very well, recently talking in front of a small group as he accepted the award, skates and runs at a gold-medal level and Lupton-Stegall bounced back from the chemo each time until he was recently told he was in remission from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and leukemia.

He might have a rod in his leg and dealt with the aftereffects of chemo, but to this point nothing has been able to touch his heart.

"He has touched mine though...," his mother Abby Lupton said as her voiced tailed off as she fought back tears.

Lupton has been through it all with her second oldest of four children and clearly it hasn't been easy, but it doesn't show in the gleam in her eyes especially when she is talking about Tim.

"He is a special and incredibly strong man," she said. "For someone to be through so much, who cheated death twice, to still be here .... there has to be a reason. If there is one thing I have gained from all of this is a renewed faith. It was kind of the only thing for me to hold on to."

It is understandable considering just seven short - and yet long - months ago she noticed her son's left leg looked a little swollen after he returned home from work at the Ahwatukee Fry's Marketplace at 40th Street and Chandler Boulevard.

"He was probably in pain for a long time, but he never says anything," Lupton said. "He worked one day and was in the ICU the next. He just dealt with it because he didn't want to bother anyone. They said if we had waited two or three days more he probably would have been in complete renal failure, and we would have lost him."

One doctor's appointment later, where his white blood cell counts were out of whack, Lupton-Stegall was diagnosed with cancer. It isn't an easy thing to take in, process, and come out with a positive outlook. It is even harder for someone with autism to fully comprehend.

It meant that his mother and sisters, Tiffany and Kayla, had to explain why over and over again as to the reason he was going back to doctors again, and why he had to stay in the hospital for five days at a time.

"When we were down and needed a pick-me-up, it was always him doing it," Tiffany, 26, said. "No matter how low we got, he was always there with a smile."

He just couldn't help himself - per usual his positive outlook got everyone through each tough moment.

It is the same approach that made him an easy pick for the most inspirational athlete.

Whether it is in speed skating for cross country running, he is always gracious and kind to everyone he comes across, and tells everyone good job.

"Throughout the years that I have coached Tim, he has always been an athlete who took his practice time and competition very seriously," said Desert Vista guidance counselor Karen Hinds, who nominated him for the award. "Tim is one of those athletes that would get on the line and wish his opponent good luck and shake their hands. After every race he would also congratulate them on a good race and shake everyone's hand."

The second hand shake usually came after a win for Lupton-Stegall, who used to train with the Desert Vista cross country team before graduating five years ago and made the 500-mile club, as he has won more than 70 medals, including 30 gold.

"He has been so drawn to sports," his mother said. "It is one of things that has kept him going through all of this. That was why it was so hard for him to miss time (during his battle with cancer). Sports is probably the most important thing in the world to him and that was taken away."

His presence was definitely missed at the rink this season.

"There has been an empty space on the rink this season," Hinds said. "We have missed his presence this season, but we expect to have him back next season."

Lupton-Stegall is on the comeback trail in more ways than one. After being deemed in remission just two weeks ago, he is already thinking about the Special Olympics Spring Games.

"He wants to start as a speed walker and build his way up to cross country again," his mother said. "His mind is always working on what is next and that is so special considering where could have been."

Of course, Lupton-Stegall doesn't think in those terms. He only sees life, as maddening as it has been, one way. On his way to the finish line of life, he has overcome more obstacles than most could handle, but yet here he is waiting for the next challenge.

The only way to respond is in true Lupton-Stegall style.

Good job, good job.

"I've always been a positive person," he said. "I see people and I just want to make sure they are happy at work or at races. I think why I survived all of these things is because of my positive attitude and my will to live."

• Contact writer: (480) 898-7915 or jskoda@ahwatukee.com. Follow him on Twitter @JSkodaAFN.

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