By Kim Constantinesco
While most 16-year-old’s are embracing a drivers license — a highly anticipated ticket to freedom — Hunter Gandee is happier walking.
The high school junior from Temperance, Mich. recently completed a 111-mile walk, and he did it with his 9-year-old brother, Braden, strapped to his back all to raise awareness and money for cerebral palsy.
Along with their parents and two other siblings, Kerragan, 15, and Kellen, 8, the family is known as The Cerebral Palsy Swagger.
“Swagger means a walk with attitude, or purpose,” Hunter said. “We were definitely walking with a purpose.”
Because Braden has cerebral palsy, an incurable neurological condition that affects body movement and muscle coordination, the family wants to spread a message of hope and inclusion to the masses. And there’s nothing like pounding the pavement to do so.
Stronger than a Grand Canyon pack mule, Hunter has carried his younger brother for hundreds of miles in three separate walks, which have wrangled over $200,000 in donations for cerebral palsy research and for the building of a handicap accessible playground.
Beyond those miles, he has carried Braden his entire life.
“We’ve always been really close,” Hunter said. “It’s just now everyone else is able to see it.”
That’s exactly why Sports Illustrated named Hunter the High School Athlete of the Year in 2015.
Play for Everyone
It all started with a dream that Danielle Gandee had about her kids.
“My mom had a dream one night that I was raising money for cerebral palsy by walking with Braden on my back,” Hunter said. “It was something we joked about at first, and then it turned into something we thought about a little more, and we said, ‘You know. Maybe this dream could be a reality.’ It was supposed to be more of a community based project, and it has gone so much further than we originally thought it could.”
The family’s first walk in 2014 went 40 miles from Hunter’s junior high wrestling room to the University of Michigan’s Bahna Wrestling Center. It was a fitting destination. Hunter is a dedicated high school wrestler himself.
As a result of the inaugural event, thousands of people learned about cerebral palsy and $19,000 in donations were given to the University of Michigan’s Cerebral Palsy Research Consortium on the boys’ behalf.
As the story grew, so did the donations. Over $200,000 went to the cause thanks to some very generous hearts from all over the world.
Then, they decided it was time for round number two. In 2015, they added 17 miles onto their original distance for a 57-mile walk. Again, there was a flooding of support.
“People across the country wanted to support us,” Hunter said. “Some wanted to walk with us, but couldn’t because of the distance, but they still wanted to be part of this, somehow. So, they started donating.”
A handicap accessible playground was never on their radar at the start of all this. As donations were rolling in, however, the Gandee’s asked Braden for his opinion on where the money should go. Braden spoke up loud and clear. So, the family teamed up with his school and its PTA to make the dream possible.
“Before the playground was built, Braden just watched while other kids played because there was nothing accessible to him, except one swing that was in mulch,” Hunter said.
To save money, they made it a community build project. It took them three weeks to build the playground at Braden’s school. But by the end of October, everyone could enjoy it, Braden included.
The latest and longest walk the Swagger crew did came in April when they traversed the roads from Temperance to the state capital in Lansing.
Hunter had a nearly 70-pound Braden hitched to his back the entire time, except for the last half mile. That, Braden tackled himself, with the help of his walker.
“When he said he was doing it, we all knew that he was going to because he put his mind to it,” Hunter said. “It was really tough for him. Half a mile is a long distance for him. A couple hundred people were there to help get him through.”
Throughout that six-day walk, the group never dropped below 20 people. Keeragan, whose specialty is editing all the videos for the team’s social channels, walked every step of the way. So did 8-year-old, Kellen.
“We joke about it because he probably walked about 200 miles,” Hunter said. “I was walking a straight line, but he was running ahead and running back; running all around.”
The distance, however, was no joke, especially for Hunter, who got ready for the walk by working out with a personal trainer and carrying a military rucksack loaded with sandbags.
The third day was the longest in terms of mileage, but it was also the most difficult because the day’s trek ended with three mils of hills, which took their toll.
“At the beginning of the fourth day, my hip gave out,” Hunter said. “My gluteus medius was being overworked, so I had a shooting pain through the side of my right hip.”
It lingered into the fifth day, but Hunter fought through with some inspiration from Braden.
“He has overcome a lot of things. He just pushes through,” Hunter said. He has a lot of things that are hard to do, but he tries to not let that stop him. That was my mentality, too.”
Crossing that finish line was bittersweet. As Braden’s growth spurts hit the gas pedal and Hunter’s begin to slow down, the two realize that doing another massive piggyback-style walk to the tune of over 100 miles likely isn’t in the cards.
But, that’s not keeping them from their mission. Hunter is a highly sought after public speaker, and thoroughly enjoys talking to those his own age. Meanwhile, Braden is using his summer vacation to work on getting more comfortable with his crutches so that he can ditch his walker, and walk with a new kind of “swag.”
The Gandee’s will no doubt continue to walk the walk for cerebral palsy. They know that more good things will come down the road if they just put one foot in front of the other, and carry the load.