In June, when other high school students are working summer jobs or enjoying summer break, Garrison Hayes and Lauren Gates will be competing in the U.S. Paralympic Trials in Charlotte, North Carolina. They’ll be trying to win a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Track and Field Team and the opportunity to represent their country in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“It’s definitely achievable,” said Hayes, who is a junior at Cherokee Trail High School.
He and Gates, a freshman at Grandview High School, are up-and-coming para-athletes. They are among 66 athletes selected as 2015 U.S. Paralympics Track and Field High School All-Americans last September by U.S. Paralympics, a division of the United States Olympic Committee. Hayes, who earned All-American honors nine other times, was also named 2015 Male Field Athlete of the Year.
The selections were based on athletes’ performances during the 2015 track and field season. Hayes led the high school field in both discus and shot put and ranked second in the javelin. In addition, he won gold in discus and javelin and finished third in shot put and long jump in the 2015 International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports (IWAS) World Junior Championships in Stadskanaal, Netherlands last July.
Gates posted impressive performances in long jump and discus that earned her a national ranking of second and fourth, respectively, in those events. She also won silver in discus and bronze in the 200 meter at the 2015 IWAS World Junior Championships.
Paralympic All-American athletes have “Paralympic-eligible impairments” that can be physical or intellectual. Gates was born with a condition called Proximal Focal Femoral Deficiency (PFFD), which causes her right leg to grow more slowly than her left leg. Right now, her right leg is about nine inches shorter than her left leg, but she’s never let that slow her down. In fact, she thinks it’s helped give her an edge.
“For the longest time I compared myself with able-bodied kids and that made me really competitive,” Gates said.
In 2005, at age six, Hayes was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma, a type of cancerous bone tumor. He underwent a procedure called Van Ness Rotationplasty; his left leg was amputated just above the knee. The procedure saved his life and didn’t stop him from participating in a full range of sports including soccer, basketball, football, lacrosse, mountain biking and skiing. He’s earned a number of athletic accolades in addition to All-American honors. He received the 2014 Athlete with a Disability Recognition Award from the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame and the 2013 Exceptional Star of the Year Award from the John Lynch Foundation.
Both use a prosthetic device in their daily lives and another in their athletic endeavors.
“Under my foot, instead of having a pylon and rubber foot, I have a blade,” Gates explained. “It’s really strong, but it can bend. It gives me a little extra spring.”
Gates and Hayes say it’s not easy being different, but they’ve found support in their schools and communities.
“People are usually a little stand-offish at first. They don’t believe I’m an internationally competitive athlete,” Hayes said. “But my school has been receptive. The kids are starting to recognize that I’m an athlete.”
“I’ve never been bullied,” Gates said. “I went through elementary school and middle school with the same kids. They’re just used to it. They say they’ve forgotten about it.”
Both Gates and Hayes will be competing on their high school track and field teams this spring, alongside their able-bodied peers.
“Although I have not coached Lauren yet, I have seen her compete many times,” said John Reyes, Grandview’s head track coach. “Despite her physical disability, Lauren does not hint in any way that she is any different than any other athlete at a track meet. She competes to the best of her abilities every time and approaches the sport of track and field as a student of the sport. She works to get better with every race and is a fierce competitor. I’m looking forward to working with Lauren this season.”
“Garrison is a tremendous example for ALL student athletes of all ages of how personal determination and family support can lead to achieving incredible personal goals,” said Steve Carpenter, athletic director at Cherokee Trail High School.
Gates and Hayes train together three days a week, and like other high school student athletes, they face the challenge of balancing academics and athletics. Both plan on attending college after high school. Gates would like to study engineering and architectural design at Berkley, Cornell or Colorado School of Mines. Hayes is interested in Notre Dame, Penn State and UCLA, where he’d like to study biomedical engineering so he could make his own prosthetics.
Hayes also volunteers at The Children’s Hospital where he was treated. He spends time with other young people facing amputations or other life-altering conditions.
“I let them know that there’s a bright future ahead of them. I invite them to train with us,” Hayes said. “I want them to know that there is a way to become active again. They want to feel that sense of achievement. They don’t want to be treated differently.”
Though neither teen considers themselves a role model, the principals at their respective high schools say they definitely inspire others.
“Lauren is a remarkable student athlete,” said Grandview High School Principal Sarah Grobbel. “Behind her humble personality, you will find a hardworking and determined young lady who will continue to push the boundary of what any young athlete is capable of achieving. She is admired by her peers, not because of what she has overcome, but rather because of what she continues to achieve.”
“Garrison’s presence at Cherokee Trail has enlightened the perspective of students, teachers and coaches,” said Cherokee Trail High School Principal Kim Rauh. “He epitomizes grit and perseverance while remaining humble and appreciative.”
Note: You can learn more about Lauren Gates and Garrison Hayes and support them on their journey toward the 2016 Paralympics at www.garrisonhayes.com and www.laurengatesathlete.com.