Bedford High's Hunter Gandee is SI's June High School Athlete of the Month
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There was less than a mile and a half to go in the 57-mile piggyback he had embarked on, with his little brother, Braden, strapped to his back three days before. High school wrestler Hunter Gandee, stoic for much of the walk, had something to say:
“Grind match!” he bellowed as his companions, many of them his teammates on Bedford High’s wrestling squad, laughed knowingly.
In a grind match—a wrestling drill in which you grapple with your opponent in a test of wills until the clock runs out—you get a point if you pin the other person, or if they tap out, bleed, or curse. Pins don’t end the contest though, it’s an endurance test, and whomever has the most points when time is up, wins.
“You have to mentally break them,” Hunter explained. “These last few miles are all mental. It’s like a grind match because it’s the end, it’s the physical test of what we’ve done and it’s also the mental test of just getting through.”
Last year, Hunter walked 40 miles with Braden on his back in a journey from their home in Temperance, Mich., to the wrestling center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a trek they dubbed the Cerebral Palsy Swagger.
Eight-year-old Braden was born at 32 weeks with cerebral palsy, a brain injury suffered before, during or immediately after birth, that affects muscle coordination and motor function. The brothers’ extreme test of physical endurance was dreamed up to bring attention to the limited mobility issues that Braden and children like him face in a world designed for able-bodied people.
This year, Braden and Hunter, now a freshman at Bedford High in Temperance, Mich., announced an encore of last year’s trek—only this time, with Braden about four inches taller and ten pounds heavier at 60 pounds, they would tack on another 17 miles and end at Michigan’s Pediatric Rehabilitation Center in Ann Arbor. Braden’s therapists and doctors there had helped identify him as a prime candidate for selective dorsal rhizotomy, a surgery which will relieve some of the extreme muscle tightness that makes it difficult for him to walk. On June 26, surgeons will open up a six-to-eight incision in his back to expose his spine, where they will test individual bundles of nerves and sever the ones that cause his muscles to overfire, freeing his body to learn how to walk without the spasticity that has kept him off balance for his entire life.
They had intended only to raise awareness last year, hoping to gain the attention of engineers and entrepreneurs who could help come up with solutions for cerebral palsy patients. But when supporters insisted on giving them donations, they raised $16,000 for Michigan’s Cerebral Palsy Research Consortium and later started a GoFundMe campaign, raising $200,000 of $350,000 needed for a new handicap-accessible playground to replace the one at Braden’s school. Designed to look like a pirate ship with inclusive features like rubber flooring and ramps, the new playground is set to be completed by the start of the school year.
“I’m really excited for it,” Braden says. “A handicap accessible playground will help me play with my friends.”
DAY 1, THE START
The entire Gandee family was assembled on a stage erected outside Douglas Road Elementary School, where Braden recently finished up second grade. Parents Danielle and Sam were there along with Hunter, 15 and about to conclude his freshman year, Kerragan, 14 and just finishing up eighth grade, Braden, eight, and littlest brother Kellen, seven, heading into second grade. Local dignitaries gave a few speeches, shovels were placed in the ground to kick off the construction of the new playground, Braden was hitched to Hunter’s back in a custom harness and the boys were off on the first the leg of their journey. The Gandees were joined by all 550 students at Douglas Road Elementary for the first half mile, eight of whom were needed to hold a “Cerebral Palsy Swagger” banner more than a car-lane wide. Kellen, unable to hold Braden’s hand, settled for holding his big brother’s foot instead as it dangled next to Hunter’s hip. As the siblings pushed ahead, the children released balloons into the air in the signature bright green of cerebral palsy awareness.
“We’re off, 57 miles!” Hunter said.
“How are you feeling, Bray?” Kerragan asked as she strode beside them.
“I’m feeling really good!” Braden chirped.
“We’ll see about that in a few days,” Hunter laughed.
On a beautiful spring-turning-summer afternoon about a week earlier, Braden headed to the playground at Douglas Road Elementary. What looks like a cheerful, brightly colored plastic paradise to most kids looks like a big, huge obstacle to Braden, a reminder that although he is like his peers in almost every way, he has physical limitations that sometimes keep him from being the regular kid that he is. There’s only one piece of equipment on the entire playground that he can use—a handicap accessible swing—but even then he has to struggle across the mulched ground to get there and needs someone to lift him up and out of his earthbound walker so that he can cut ties with gravity and swing high and free into the blue sky.
“This is his recess every day. He’s in second grade and wants to do so much because that’s the highlight of most second graders’ days is going out to recess,” says Hunter. “Just the fact that he can’t be out there…it’s a sad feeling.”
Not much can keep Braden down, though. Barred from going down the slide or scooting across the monkey bars, he and a classmate made their own fun that afternoon, crouching in a pile of pebbles where they pretended the rocks were gold coins and they were guarding their treasure from marauding pirates on the high seas (the role of the marauding pirates was played by Kellen).
As sweet as it is to see Braden and his friends come up with creative ways to include him in the playground fun, it will be even sweeter to see them tearing around the playground together instead of being reduced to playing in a pile of rocks.
“That feeling of accomplishment is going to be great,” Hunter says. “But we don’t look at it as what we’ve accomplished, we look at as what we all have accomplished and what everyone around us has done with us and for us.”
As the tired walkers reached Wilderness Campground in Dundee, their overnight stop at the end of Day One, about 100 campers filtered out from their campgrounds to welcome them. The kindness of strangers would keep revealing itself throughout the walk and at this waypoint, the campground store was opened to Hunter, Braden and the stalwart pack of about a dozen friends who would accompany them the entire way. The kids were given their fill of whatever they wanted, from popsicles to the fixings to make s’mores. Chocolate for dinner? This trekking business wasn’t so bad, after all. But there were 39 miles yet to go.
The entire idea started with a dream. Last April, the boys’ mother, Danielle, dreamt that Hunter was carrying Braden from their home in southeast Michigan to the Mackinac Bridge, some 300 miles away at the northern tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula, where they spend a few weeks each summer, to raise awareness for cerebral palsy.
The family had been giving Braden piggybacks to help him get around ever since he had gotten too big to be carried in their arms. It started off as just being a convenient way to help him get from point A to point B. But Hunter realized that his mother’s dream of carrying his brother on his back along the highways and byways of Michigan could be a powerful symbol.
“Having Braden on my back symbolizes the relationship we have and the power we have when people come together,” Hunter says. “If all people come together and are as close as we are, we can accomplish great things.”
He started to plot a realistic distance and seized upon the Bahna Wrestling Center at the Michigan campus, 40 miles away, as their endpoint. Within a month, he had created a Facebook page and a month after that, the two set out along the route not knowing what was to come.
“I thought the idea for the walk was insane,” Braden said. “I thought that we would try but we would not finish it. Nobody ever did that before. We’re just ordinary people, not superheroes.”
Despite drenching rain, blisters and chafing, they did finish, and in a last moment burst of energy, Hunter dug deep to lift Braden high enough to touch the GO BLUE! banner that fluttered overhead, marking the finish.
“That was the best day of my life,” Hunter says.
DAY 2, MILE 30
Braden is having trouble getting enough fluids and so his friend Max’s mom challenges him to drink half a Gatorade in 30 seconds. The payout: 50 cents. Braden delivers and she coughs up the change but Braden instructs her to donate it to the playground fund. “Every little bit counts,” he says, smiling.
With little more than a week to go before the walk, the brothers visited physical therapist Ann Nagle to test out the harnesses they would be using to help transport Braden. During last year’s walk, Hunter’s lower back was in intense pain and Braden suffered chafing from his harness that forced Hunter to carry him in his arms for the last few miles. Armed with that experience, the boys had prepped extensively to avoid those problems this time around. Hunter had already ripped through two backpacks, wearing them everywhere while loaded with 45-pound free weights inside, to strengthen his back. The fitting with Nagle, who has been Braden’s therapist since he was three months old, would help the boys to know how best to position Braden and which harness to use depending on the weather and where they were experiencing discomfort.
“I don’t want him holding on there because it digs into my neck,” Hunter explained to Nagle as Braden was eased into a harness they had custom-designed using wheelchair parts and an industrial sewing machine. “It doesn’t choke me, but he puts his arm right on my artery or something.”
“It’s called a sleeper hold,” Nagle laughed.
From his perch on Hunter’s back, Braden, piped up, “You’re supposed to be walking, not going to sleep!”
Douglas Road Elementary School fourth grade teacher, Sandy Wuwert, is chugging along at the back of the pack. She’s working hard to keep up but is determined to make it to the next rest stop. “There’s a lot of heart in these kids and I don’t even know where it comes from,” she says. “That’s why I love kids, they don’t have ‘no’ in their vocabulary.”
Bedford High is a wrestling school. The program there has a long tradition of success, with 11 state titles stretching back to the 1960’s. The most elemental of sports—grappling man to man—wrestling requires intense mental and physical strength and stamina.
“Wrestling is life,” says Bedford head coach Kevin Vogel. “The things that you learn on the mat in a one-on-one competition you can really take into life. You learn discipline, you learn work ethic, you learn that if you want something you have to work hard for it.”
Hunter broke into the starting lineup enough to earn his varsity letter as a freshman this season and was voted the practice co-wrestler of the year for his relentless work ethic. On the football field, he was a starting defensive end.
“I don’t have to be watching over my shoulder in practice to see if the kid is working out hard,” Vogel says. “I know he’s working out hard. He’s always giving his best and always banging and really going for it.”
Local fire departments have been escorting the entourage throughout the day to protect them on the narrow-shouldered country roads along their route and though there is a scheduled handoff between Augusta Township and the Washtenaw County Sheriff here, the Augusta rig and its firefighters elect to stay with the boys, lights flashing, even after the sheriff takes the lead. When the call to volunteer for the official route escort arose, Augusta Township firefighter Josh Jacobs had to jockey for one of the spots. “People instantly signed up,” he said. “I almost didn’t get to come.” He was impressed by the boys’ pilgrimage. “Actions speak louder than words.”
Braden is a fixture at Hunter’s high school wrestling matches, crouching down on the floor at the edge of the mat, where he keeps score and cheers him on.
“Hunter is Superman but he is stronger than Superman,” Braden says. “He’s always there for me.”
Vogel marvels at the brothers’ bond. “How could you not want to give your best when you’ve got your little brother there who thinks you’re a god and is looking up to you? It’s amazing.”
This year though, Hunter got to cheer Braden on for a change. Braden began wrestling in the youth league with Hunter as his coach and even got to compete in a scrimmage. “Seeing how he enjoys it so much and the fact that he does it because of me—it’s really cool,” says Hunter.
“Physically, it’s core strength,” Danielle says of Braden’s wrestling, which doubles as an extra physical therapy session in addition to the seven various consultations he already undergoes each week. “But it’s a confidence thing too, and a team thing.”
With his friends blasting Braden’s song request, “Eye of the Tiger” through a cell phone held up to a handheld megaphone, the pack rounds the corner to their final destination that day—a Marriott hotel where Hunter will later take an ice bath and hop in the hot tub and where Braden will fall asleep clutching an uneaten snack in his hand. But before any of that can happen, Hunter reaches the entrance and sinks to his knees at the end of the day’s punishing 24 miles, his pit crew of friends and family struggling to unstrap Braden from his back. Hunter would later call this moment the toughest episode of the journey. “I actually collapsed to the ground from how tired and sore I was,” he says. “But the good way to look at it was that I fell to the ground—but my friends picked me back up. “
Last year, after completing the walk, the brothers were featured on NBC Nightly News. They were named grand marshals at the town’s Christmas parade, got their photo on a commemorative Wheaties box, threw out the first pitch at a Tigers game and received jerseys from Justin Verlander. They were welcomed with their whole family onto the field at Michigan’s home opener football game where they got to meet the Jaguars’ Denard Robinson. They had their own action figure created by a team of Michigan engineering students using a laser scan 3D printer. They were guests of WWE Raw when it came to town and posed for photos with the Toledo Mudhens’ mascot.
The brothers are recognized almost everywhere they go together now. They were spotted while on vacation in Florida earlier this year. And on a recent walk through town, stuffing mailboxes along their route with flyers announcing their journey, a boy sitting across the street with a group of adults on lawn chairs shot his hand into the air and shouted, “Hi Hunter!”
“Who is that?” someone asked.
“I have no idea,” Hunter shrugged with a grin.
The next morning, the group is up bright and early to hit the trail. Waiting for them at the corner of the hotel’s parking lot are Cathy and Kent Haglund from Ypsilanti and their boys, Anri, 6, and Vaughn, 4. Anri has a relatively mild form of cerebral palsy that was diagnosed a year ago. It can feel lonely and isolating to deal with a serious diagnosis like cerebral palsy, Cathy said, so when she heard about the brothers’ mission on the local NPR radio station, she felt she needed to support them and also show her boys that they’re not alone. “We thought it was awesome for them to see this brotherly love and we wanted to teach them that lesson, so thank you,” she told the Gandees as her boys high-fived Braden. They walk with the troop for a spell, until Anri’s little legs can’t keep up with their clip anymore. “It’s important for them to see brothers help each other,” Cathy said.
Hunter’s wrestling practice partner, sophomore Levi Elarton, knows well the resolve that will power his friend forward for all 152,725 steps of the journey ahead.
“He’s very determined,” Levi says. “He sets goals and is determined to get those goals and he never stops and never gives up.”
Hunter would show up to the junior high wrestling practice as a sixth grader, before he was even on the team, just to get practice and mat time, Levi remembers.
“He persevered and just wanted to kick people’s butts,” he grins.
This year as a freshman he displayed that same doggedness, volunteering to go up against a two-time state champ when the team needed someone to step up.
“He wants to go hard every single day, every single year and he wants to become the best and he doesn’t just want to wait until he becomes a senior to do it,” Levi says.
Former University of Michigan wrestler Chris Heald sprints past a highway on-ramp to join Hunter and Braden at front of the pack. A recent Michigan graduate with a degree in physical education and health, Heald is wearing a can’t-miss-it, chunky blue school ring on his right hand, a prestigious piece of bling that is only given to Wolverines’ wrestlers who start for four years. Heald was one of a handful of supporters who walked with the Gandee brothers for their entire 40-mile journey last year, and organized the fanfare at last year’s Bahna Wrestling Center finish line despite having never met the two boys before embarking on the trip. When he had heard what Hunter was doing, he simply felt compelled to walk alongside him.
“Wrestling’s one of those sports where it’s a silent brotherhood,” Heald says. “You’re on the mats in close combat with a teammate or opponent and it’s just a grind. So if you wrestle, there’s just that respect because it’s so much tougher than any other sport—at least in my opinion. It separates the boys from the men. I came out here because Hunter shows that mental side of wrestling that you don’t see in a lot of people. He has that mental attitude to persevere past the hardships that come with starting as a freshman wrestler.”
As they were walking together earlier, Heald gave Hunter advice about his plan to move up to 160 pounds from the 152-lb weight class that he mostly wrestled in this past year, since the team has a state champ who will be a senior in that weight next year.
“I told him that’s a great thing but you always wanna look to win the little battles, look towards getting that hand position in the right spot, or escaping, and over time, all those little battles you set your goals towards, once you accomplish them, you’re going to eventually win that match,” Heald says.
Ask Hunter what his dreams are for the future and he’ll tell you he wants to wrestle for Michigan and become a biomedical engineer. Which brings him to his biggest dream, which isn’t even for his own future, but for Braden’s.
“My ultimate dream is for Braden to be able to walk by himself,” Hunter says.
He quickly pulls up a story on his phone about an Ironman-like robotic exoskeleton that uses motors and sensors to helps wearers walk. That is what he wants to do someday; develop mobility assistive equipment to help people like Braden navigate the world. It’s creative solutions like the exoskeleton that he is hoping will result when the future engineers, entrepreneurs, innovators, researchers and medical practitioners of the world see the spotlight that the walk has shined on Braden’s struggles with everyday tasks like getting in and out of a car, stepping into a bathtub and simply putting one foot in front of the other.
“People don’t realize the simple things that could make their world more accessible,” he says.
Step by step, the peeling red barns, cornfields and stately old trees of the prior day’s winding country roads have given way to commercial strip malls dotted with impersonal-looking fast food franchises, car washes and corporate big box stores. But people are still waiting and watching for the walkers to come through. A Walgreen’s employee hands out bottles from a case of water he has dragged out to a roadside table and a little further down the street and across the four lanes of traffic, someone has arranged the block letters on the roadside sign at an Arby’s to display a message of support. It reads:
Go Braden and Hunter
Making A Difference
Cerebral Palsy Swag
A cluster of employees stands underneath the sign. It’s impossible to see their faces but their cheers are audible and one clearly makes a motion to wipe away a tear. Shift manager Patrick Ehrmann is among them. “It was a little emotional,” he would later say of witnessing the brothers march by. “It was such a big deal—it’s his brother and everything. So there was a lot of gravity of the situation, it was a heavy thing. But it was nice to see.”
Hunter was six when Braden was born. He wasn’t allowed to hold him at first—no one was. A tiny preemie, Braden was whisked away to the NICU where he was isolated and hooked up to machines that helped him breathe and monitored his vital signs.
“The first time I held Braden was when we were allowed to take him home from the hospital,” Hunter says, but even then he was still hooked up to breathing machines. “It was hard seeing such a little boy go through so much already and he was just a few days old.”
Ann Arbor resident Julie Pinsak is wearing blue slacks and a maize-colored shirt with 107,501—the onetime capacity of The Big House—emblazoned on the front. She identifies herself with her first and last name, quickly followed by her season ticket seats: Section 6, row 74, seats five through eight. “I am just in awe of that kid,” she says as she walks behind Hunter to the next rest stop in a parking lot next to the stadium. “My heart’s racing for them.” About a half mile earlier, she organized a spontaneous pep section at a coffee shop along the route, handing out gold pom-poms to the customers there, many of whom had heard of Braden and Hunter’s trek and eagerly joined her outside to root them on as they marched past.
As Hunter and Braden go for a practice walk one Friday evening, Temperance resident Doug Hafner is relaxing on his front porch with citronella candle burning to keep the mosquitos away. His two kids graduated from Bedford High and he immediately recognizes the duo chugging along down his street. “When you live in a small township like this and there’s a story like that and it goes national, everyone knows the story,” he says. “It’s good to see kids do something like that. It’s tear-jerking, almost.”
Doria Chege, the operations manager for Michigan’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, hobbles along with one crutch as the boys pass the Big House’s front gate. She tore the posterior cruciate ligament in her knee the other week, but no matter. “I’m inspired,” she said, “I mean c’mon, they remove any excuse anyone could possibly have for anything.”
Hunter has tried never to wonder, “Why my brother?” instead believing that there must be a reason why Braden, of all people, was born with cerebral palsy and that one day he would understand why. Last year’s walk gave him his answer.
“I believe that Braden has cerebral palsy because no one in the world fights harder than he does and does it all with a smile,” Hunter says. “No one is able to inspire people the way he does and go through all the challenges he does while being so happy and looking on the bright side. Not a lot of people would be able to do that but he’s strong enough and he’s the strongest person I know.”
The entourage drops off 57 balloons, one for every mile on their route, to patients at Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, where in three weeks Braden will be undergoing his surgery. Along the way, Hunter’s friends inhale the helium from a few spare balloons and sprint to the front of the pack to entertain Braden with their high-pitched voices. As long as Braden is smiling, they know that Hunter can power through anything.
Sitting on the floor of the high school hallway, waiting for one of Hunter’s off-season wrestling practices to end earlier this spring, Braden attempted to Jedi-mind-trick his mother into canceling his surgery, scheduled for later that month.
“Repeat after me,” he instructed her. “No surgery…”
“No surgery,” she dutifully replied.
“For Braden,” he continued.
“For Braden,” she repeated, “….today.”
“Are you getting nervous?” Danielle asked as she kneeled on the ground in front of him. Braden nodded. “Me too, baby.”
“One idea I don’t like,” Braden said, “I don’t like the idea of them opening my spine.”
“I don’t either,” agreed Danielle as she smiled a sympathetic smile.
“I can honestly say, the farther we go, the longer miles seem,” says Kyle Hudgin, one of the band of merry pranksters that made up the core group of CP Swag entourage who have been walking with Hunter and Braden since the start. Kyle, Hunter’s teammate on the football and wrestling teams, was there for the entire walk last year as well but they passed the 40-mile mark long ago and the finish, though so close, is starting to feel like thousands of miles away.
Reflecting on the walk ahead a few days before they were set to embark, Braden allowed that it was a long way. “It’s a bit crazy because, you know, 57 miles is a lot of miles to carry someone for,” he said. “I’m just happy that I have a brother that does that for me.”
If they finished though, it would be worth it.
“Hunter’s just one 15 year old person, if he can accomplish this, what can I accomplish? If we all come together, who knows what will happen?”
Last stop before the finish line. A band of well-wishers is waiting as the group approaches. Among them are sisters Kristi and Gina Worful, dressed in spandex superhero costumes. “It’s so inspiring to see them sticking together,” said Kristi, a personal trainer, as Gina, a registered dietitian, helps hand out bananas to the walkers. They, along with other well-wishers, join the group as the boys embark on the last leg of their journey. All along the trip, the walkers have been picking up more and more people, like iron filings attracted to a magnet. The entourage now numbers about 40. It’s the home stretch. Levi, who has kicked off each day with a blessing, leads a final prayer.
“These guys are really feeling the pain right now, God,” Levi prays. “There’s three miles left and I ask you heal whatever's going on and bring peace to them,” he says. “Give them strength and give them stanima today, God, as they finish strong.” Someone yells out, “Mules on three!” and the prayer circle breaks with a chant of “One, two, three, MULES!” before the group dissolves into giggles; Levi has been mispronouncing “stamina” all weekend, and now it’s become a running joke. No matter—whatever stanima is, Hunter and Braden have it, and they set off in their final march toward the finish line.
Shortly after his grind-match rallying cry, Hunter ditches the harness and Braden rides bareback for the last half mile. Braden’s friend Taylor, who joined up six miles ago, refuses when his father offers to let him take a break. As the group gets closer to the finish, walkers push towards the front, wanting to be close to Hunter and Braden as they reach their goal. The long skinny line with the brothers at the lead and a few stragglers at the back morphs into something closer to a football kickoff formation, taking up the width of a city street and sweeping along with a sense of urgency. The finish line is finally in view and Braden is grinning from ear to ear. Anything in the way, including a television news camerawoman angling for a close-up in the middle of the road, is either getting trampled or caught up in the oncoming tide.
Elaina Bell is waiting at the finish line with her daughters, Cheyann, 6, and Kaydence, 3, who has ataxic diplegic cerebral palsy. They came from Fowlerville 45 minutes away to witness the boys’ finish because Bell wanted her girls’ to learn from their example.
“It gives me hope that one day she’ll see the support that siblings can provide,” Bell says, motioning toward her oldest. “And I want to make sure that Kady knows she’s just like anybody else.”
Dr. Ed Hurvitz, the chair of the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the U of M Medical School, is there at the finish line, too, helping to hold the tape as the walkers, with Hunter, Braden, Kerragan and Kellen at the front of the pack, jubilantly burst through it. The tape flutters to the ground and the crowd roars in approval.
“I was extremely impressed with this whole family, but especially Hunter,” Hurvitz would later marvel. “They are real heroes.”
The journey had ended. Hunter was crouched at the finish line as Braden, needing a sugar boost, sucked on a lollipop. A Star Wars storm trooper in Michigan colors posed for photos with the crowd. Olympic wrestler and world silver medalist Jake Herbert was there wearing a faux mullet attached to a sweatband. Moments before, Bedford wrestling coach Kevin Vogel hugged Hunter and told him, “The whole community is proud of you.” Somewhere in the background, Hunter’s friends were up to their usual good-natured mischief, plotting a Gatorade ice bath for the fearless leader they had given up their weekends and sacrificed their sore knees to follow for nearly 60 miles. All around parents of children with cerebral palsy milled about, talking to each other and comparing notes. Each and every one was there because a 15-year-old boy and his selfless act of compassion had inspired them in some way.
“I understand the feeling of how they’re inspired by us, because I’m inspired by Braden every day,” Hunter said of the supporters there to witness the finish. “People see what I do for three days, but I see what Braden does every day. I may be struggling through a 57-mile walk but he struggles through life every day. And I may be sore right now but he has to go through things every day and he does it with a smile. And that inspires me.”