High Schooler Named Athlete Of Year For Cerebral Palsy Work
TEMPERANCE, Mich. — Hunter Gandee was helping build an accessible playground when he received a phone call.
The structure had become an important part of the 16-year-old’s quest to raise awareness of the challenges of living with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects his younger brother, Braden. It was then Hunter learned he would be honored with Sports Illustrated’s inaugural High School Athlete of the Year award.
“It means a lot to us,” Hunter said. “Sports Illustrated is such a prestigious publication, and because they are so large and they reach so many people, our story reaches that many people. The awareness spreads even further because of their reach and network. Awareness has always been our goal, so we’re incredibly thankful.”
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Hunter, a sophomore at Bedford High School who wrestles at 160 pounds, flew to New York City on Monday and will be honored at Tuesday’s Sportsman of the Year banquet, alongside Serena Williams and Jack Nicklaus.
“It’s crazy to be in the presence of such high-profile athletes, and not only be in their presence but to be honored with them,” Hunter said. “It’s really cool and very humbling knowing I’m receiving this award.”
“I don’t truly feel like I completely deserve it. It was more than just me. It was my entire community, all the people that walked with me, my brother, my family, my wrestling team. It’s an extremely honorable experience.”
Braden, 9, is unable to walk, but his brother has not allowed a disability to alter his life. In 2014, Hunter walked 40 miles to Ann Arbor with his brother on his back.
The effort raised more than $16,000, which the Gandees donated to the University of Michigan’s Cerebral Palsy Research Consortium.
The story spread worldwide, leading to television interviews and even more donations. Hunter immediately zeroed in on building an inclusive playground at Douglas Road Elementary, where Braden attends school. The brothers completed a second 57-mile walk in June.
The C.P. Swagger Shipyard, containing wheelchair ramps and rubber floors, opened in October, thanks to more than $200,000 in donations.
“It’s a tremendous sense of pride in that young man and his family,” Bedford Athletic Director Mark German said. “The entire community is behind it. It just gives us a great feeling.
“We’d love to take credit for it, but we can’t. We’re just reaping the benefits of Hunter and Braden’s courage.”
In the past year, Hunter has been featured on national evening news broadcasts and magazines, met famous athletes, and garnered attention in countries he can’t even pronounce – all for a story the Gandees hoped might gain attention outside Monroe County.
“I never imagined or thought about this story going national,” he said. “It caught us by surprise when it did. We’re thankful for the opportunities we’ve been given. It’s really cool to see how far stories spread because it was never meant to go as far as it did.”
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