By Erin Crowell
Saturday, July 9, was a beautiful day for runners at the Meijer Festival
of Races in Traverse City. By 9 a.m., most of the participants in the 5k
race had crossed the finish line and were enjoying the complementary
water, bagels and Gatorade some settled into the empty lawn chairs left
overnight along Front Street in anticipation for The National Cherry
Festival Grand Royale Parade that would begin in just a couple hours.
Meanwhile, a dozen people had just crossed the first mile mark. From afar,
the pace seemed too casual for a race as the white t-shirt cluster stopped
every few feet, then continued on a slow shuffle towards downtown.
Team Grant, with participants ranging from ages 16 months to 80 years
old, wasnt concerned about winning the race, setting a personal best or
even seeing everyone to the finish line.
They were there to help Grant Forrester, a 24-year-old quadriplegic, walk
the farthest distance of his life.
ONE SUNDAY MORNING
The child must know that he is a miracle that since the beginning of the
world there hasnt been and will not be, another child like him. Pablo
On June 5, 1988, Forresters father, Jim, was driving him to a sitters
house in Fort Wayne Indiana when a woman ran a red light and smashed into
Still attached to his car seat, the 15-month-old was thrown from the
vehicle across three lanes of traffic and over a median, said Lauren
Leitner, Forresters mother. Its a miracle that hes alive.
When Leitner arrived on the scene, she found Forrester in an ambulance
with blood draining from both ears.
Other than that, he didnt look damaged at all, she said.
Little did Leitner know that her sons skull had cracked from ear to ear,
causing his brain to swell. After doctors drilled a hole to relieve
built-up fluid, Forrester spent the next five weeks in a coma.
It was an odd spectrum of what I was told (by physicians), Leitner
recalled. One said pull the plug, another said hed pull through it.
Eventually Forrester awoke and spent five months at a hospital in
southeast Michigan, followed up by months of therapy, therapy and more
The couple, since divorced, moved back to their home state where Forrester
could receive therapy for his spastic quadriplegia through the Michigan
public school system.
Spastic quadriplegia is a result of brain damage to an extent that it
affects the control of musculature, said Peter Bruning, Forresters
physical therapist since elementary school and longtime friend. If it
hits the motor areas, it will impede that ability for smooth, coordinating
Despite his inability to dress, bathe and use the bathroom on his own,
Forrester has grown up to be a very happy individual and a hometown
With nearly a thousand Facebook friends, Forrester (the eldest of three:
brothers Gregory, 21, and Griffin, 16) has led both his high school
football team and the Traverse City semi-pro team, The Wolves, out onto
the field; and is a year-round volunteer for the National Cherry Festival.
He does a lot of our data entry when we have information from
registration and puts that into our data base, noted Bob Reed, president
of the Cherry Festival. Hes a very nice individual and without him, I
know we would have a lot more work.
Every day, Forrester wakes up smiling, said his mother.
Hes been, and this is no joke, just the happiest kid, she said. I
remember when he was younger, Id put him on the potty and hed look up at
me and say, Mom, Im the luckiest kid.
At first glance, most would think lucky is the last word to describe
Forrester. In the mall, children stare at his chair, unsure what to think.
Grownups have hung up the phone on him, too impatient to wait for him to
complete a sentence.
However, those who know Forrester best describe him as caring, sharp and
funny the person behind luck and circumstance, behind issues of mobility
When asked how fast his chair can go, Forrester will hit the gas. If you
ask him something obvious, hell stop and quip are you kidding?
Sometimes well go over to his house and play cribbage, said Katie
Ottenbacher, a childhood friend. Ill be adding up my points like okay,
two and two is four and hell have his added up immediately, like, bam!
I got 22. Whats taking you guys so long?
Forrester is also in a five-year relationship.
He met Amber Dutmer while attending the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate
School District Adult Community Experience program.
He found someone who could see beyond the wheelchair and difficulty with
speech, hes graduated from school and continues to do things that just
amaze me, said Leitner. We are actually very lucky.
Methinks that the moment my legs began to move, my thoughts began to
flow. Henry David Thoreau
The decision to walk in the National Cherry Festival 5k was the result of
something that just suddenly clicked for Forrester, said Bruning. He knew
he needed to start exercising.
That January day, when Forrester told his mother about his goal, Leitner
was unsure; but, nonetheless, supportive. After all, it wasnt the first
time her son had accomplished a similar task.
For his graduation from TC West in 2005, Forrester walked the short, yet
remarkable distance across the Kresge Auditorium stage at Interlochen to
accept his high school diploma.
Oh my word. Everyone in the entire auditorium was on their feet and
applauding, Leitner recalled.
It was the farthest Forrester had walked, thanks to the assistance of his
gate trainer, a rolling adaptive walker that allows him to rest his upper
body and stabilize his legs.
For Forrester, his friends and his family, the moment was amazing and
inspiring, yet a glimmer of what hard work would lie ahead in preparation
to cover three miles.
No one ever drowned in sweat. unknown
During Forresters annual physical, the doctor had informed him that he
was slightly overweight, suggesting a diet of whey protein for breakfast
and lunch, followed up by a normal dinner. Forrester went the extra mile
and swore off many of his favorite foods, including sweets.
By April, he was standing for two hours at a time and walking laps at the
Grand Traverse Mall and around his neighborhood everyday, topping out at
just over a mile.
It would take me an hour to walk the mall, he said. I basically worked
my ass off.
Literally, too, as Forrester lost 40 pounds during his training.
I have two inspiring friends, said Bruning. One friend has stage 4
cancer. The other is Grant. They both just have so much determination.
When Grant asked me to join him for the race, I was like sure buddy!
Others agreed to join, including Leitners boyfriend, Rich Little, the
person who helped Forrester the most during his training walks.
Whether you believe you can or believe you cant, youre probably right.
Flanked by Team Granta group of supporters that included his mother,
grandmother, girlfriend, childhood friends, classmates and extended
familyForrester started the Cherry Festival 5k at 7 a.m., approximately
45 minutes before the scheduled start time.
He knew it would take him awhile to do it, said Ottenbacher, who, along
with husband Josh and 16-month-old daughter Alayna, came to witness the
But second thoughts loomed throughout the group, feelings of just enough.
I thought, well even if he just does half, itll be amazing, said
Leitner. A part of me didnt expect him to walk the entire distance.
Forrester had just crossed the pedestrian bridge of the Civic Center when
his mother suggested he take a shortcut down the dirt path to the road.
All of us were kind of pointing at the arrow painted on the concrete
saying Yeah Grant, its this way, said Ottenbacher.
No, he said firmly.
I told them I didnt want to cheat, said Forrester, knowing the race
route continued farther around the path and under the bridge.
NO SUCH THING
There are two words I dont use: cant and can. If you cant, how do you
even know youre unable to do something if you dont even try? If you can,
its probably something too easy to give up. Grant Forrester
On Washington Street, nearly a mile and a half into the course, Forrester
took his first and only sitting break, settling into his wheelchair while
Bruning and Leitner massaged his legs.
You can do it, Grant! a woman yelled from her porch.
After the team stretched his shoulder (due to a case of bursitis) and
dumped a bottle of water onto his head, Forrester stood back up and
continued the slow walk toward downtown.
The pattern continuedstop and stretch, bottle of waterbut never back in
the wheelchair. Unbeknownst to the team, Forrester had developed a blister
on his foot that popped halfway through the race.
He never brought it up.
I didnt want anyone to be concerned, he reasoned.
Sweat is pouring from his head and he would look at us every now and then
and ask, are you okay? How are you doing? Ottenbacher recalled.
As the group passed F&M Park, one of the bands that was lined up for the
parade began to play for Forrester while the cheerleaders yelled him on.
With the Grand Royale Parade scheduled to start soon, Forrester was on a
Theyll have to go around us! laughed his team members, sentiments
likely shared by festival organizers as one red-shirted official came up
to offer words of encouragement, then another, then another.
See you at the finish line, one said.
Ill be there, Forrester assured.
As the group got closer, the crowd got bigger. Familiar faces came up to
offer a pat on the shoulder, a good word or hug.
His aunt came up and hugged his grandma and she started crying, said
Dutmer. Grant was just a baby when he got in the car accident and was
just learning to walk and this was the farthest his grandma seen him go.
THE INVISIBLE FINISH
Its absolutely amazing what hes done. It makes you want to get off the
couch and do something. Ill never take anything for granted again. Josh
Ottenbacher, Team Grant
By the time Forrester reached Front Street, the timing mat had long been
hauled away, along with the bagels, water and Gatorade according to the
race website, finishers must cross the line by 10 a.m. or their
participation would not be recorded.
That day, 2,183 people crossed the finish line and although more were
registered, some did not finish others simply didnt show. Whether it
was due to injury, schedule conflict or excessive partying the night
before, their presence was absent at the end of the course that afternoon.
Except for one.
At just under four hours into his journey, Grant Forrester fiercely swung
his legs, carried by the sound of hundreds of people clapping and cheering
his namesome cryingas the quadriplegic nearly sprinted to a place that
was always within focus.
With friends and family by his side, Forrester stepped over the crosswalk
on the corner of Front and Union streets that, nearly an hour before, had
housed a timing mat that represented a finish line.
Forrester may have walked over an invisible line that day; But it was,
nevertheless a finish.