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Nothing for Granted: Grant Forrester

Erin Crowell - July 18th, 2011
Nothing for Granted: The long run of quadriplegic Grant Forrester
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, wasn’t 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 hasn’t been… and will not be, another child like him.” –Pablo
Casals
On June 5, 1988, Forrester’s father, Jim, was driving him to a sitter’s
house in Fort Wayne Indiana when a woman ran a red light and smashed into
his car.
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, Forrester’s mother. “It’s a miracle that he’s alive.”
When Leitner arrived on the scene, she found Forrester in an ambulance
with blood draining from both ears.
“Other than that, he didn’t look damaged at all,” she said.
Little did Leitner know that her son’s 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 he’d 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
therapy.”
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, Forrester’s
physical therapist since elementary school and longtime friend. “If it
hits the motor areas, it will impede that ability for smooth, coordinating
movements.”

HOMETOWN CELEB
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
celebrity.
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. “He’s 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.
“He’s been, and this is no joke, just the happiest kid,” she said. “I
remember when he was younger, I’d put him on the potty and he’d look up at
me and say, ‘Mom, I’m 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
and elocution.
When asked how fast his chair can go, Forrester will hit the gas. If you
ask him something obvious, he’ll stop and quip are you kidding?
“Sometimes we’ll go over to his house and play cribbage,” said Katie
Ottenbacher, a childhood friend. “I’ll be adding up my points like ‘okay,
two and two is four…’ and he’ll have his added up immediately, like, bam!
‘I got 22. What’s 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, he’s graduated from school and continues to do things that just
amaze me,” said Leitner. “We are actually very lucky.”

THE DECISION
“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 wasn’t 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.

THE REGIMINE
“No one ever drowned in sweat.” –unknown

During Forrester’s 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 Leitner’s boyfriend, Rich Little, the
person who helped Forrester the most during his training walks.
THE RACE
“Whether you believe you can or believe you can’t, you’re probably right.”
–Henry Ford

Flanked by “Team Grant”—a group of supporters that included his mother,
grandmother, girlfriend, childhood friends, classmates and extended
family—Forrester 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
special moment.
But second thoughts loomed throughout the group, feelings of just enough.
“I thought, well even if he just does half, it’ll be amazing,” said
Leitner. “A part of me didn’t 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, it’s this way,’” said Ottenbacher.
No, he said firmly.
“I told them I didn’t 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 don’t use: can’t and can. If you can’t, how do you
even know you’re unable to do something if you don’t even try? If you can,
it’s 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 continued—stop and stretch, bottle of water—but 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 didn’t 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
deadline.
“They’ll 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.
I’ll 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
“It’s absolutely amazing what he’s done. It makes you want to get off the
couch and do something. I’ll 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 didn’t 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 name—some crying—as 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.
 
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