After near-death surgery, Wichita’s Grant Pierce inspires as wheelchair track champion
BY TAYLOR ELDRIDGE of the wichita eagle
Grant Pierce of Heights won the 400 meter wheelchair race at the Kansas State Track and Field Championships on Thursday at Cessna Stadium. TRAVIS HEYING THE WICHITA EAGLE
There was a pretty decent chance Heights sophomore Grant Pierce wouldn’t live to see 2021.
Since he’s had to use a wheelchair because of an injury at age 7, Pierce has been no stranger to hospital rooms and surgeries. It just so happened that surgery No. 24 nearly took his life this past New Year’s Eve.
Complications arose in Wichita and Pierce had to be taken by helicopter to Kansas City for a life-saving procedure and several blood transfusions.
For Pierce, 16, the scare motivated him more to find greatness and try to make a difference with his life.
The first step toward that was achieved Thursday in front of an audience of thousands at Wichita State’s Cessna Stadium. Pierce, a Paralympic track athlete, became a two-time state champion in the inaugural wheelchair division races at the Kansas high school state track and field meet.
“It’s an honor to be here and to be able to compete at the state meet and to be the first state champ,” said Pierce, who won the 100-meter (16.29 seconds) and 400-meter (1 minute, 3.99 seconds) wheelchair races. “This is a pretty big step (for wheelchair athletes) and I’m a pretty competitive person, so I’m really glad all of this happened.”
Kary Pierce, Grant’s mother, spent years trying to convince KSHSAA to include wheelchair races as state-sanctioned events. The association finally green lit the idea for this year’s state meet, including wheelchair races for the 100 and 400. Kary Pierce argues there should be a wheelchair race for all six distances on the track, not just two, but was encouraged by the step in the right direction.
“I can only hope that KSHSAA will realize after today that these guys are just as much athletes as everybody else,” she said.
“I feel like when people think of a kid in a wheelchair, you automatically think they must be super disabled or super weak or maybe even have cognitive issues. Grant is everything opposite of that. He’s gifted. He’s in the bio-med program. He’s strong. He works out every day. So I hope today opens people’s eyes that these aren’t little, weak kids in wheelchairs. They’re just kids.”READ MORE
Brandon McMillen, an assistant track and field coach at Heights, admitted he didn’t know a single thing about wheelchair racing when he volunteered to be Grant’s coach this season.
Watching Grant train and compete this season has been a life-changing experience for him.
“I made a lot of phone calls and sent a lot of emails and the more I researched it, the more interested I became,” McMillen said. “I had no idea what this world was like, but there’s so much depth to it. It’s been so much fun watching Grant work out and watching him get faster and faster. He PR’s just like everybody else.”
Grant has used a wheelchair since the first grade, when he fell and broke his femur. Doctors discovered he had Bockenheimer’s syndrome, a rare vascular birth defect that had also caused severe osteoporosis in his left leg.
Before his injury, Grant was an avid athlete, particularly in soccer.
“I’m a really competitive person and I used to play sports all the time before my injury,” Grant said. “Track is a sport where I can compete against able-bodied people. To find a sport that I’m good at and I can excel in is really cool for me.”
Grant has been wheelchair racing ever since the sixth grade and has quickly become one of the top Paralympic athletes for his age group.
In fact, the day after winning the first two wheelchair state championships in Kansas history on Thursday, Grant boarded a plane to Phoenix on Friday to compete in the Desert Challenge Games, a three-day elite competition featuring Paralympic athletes trying to qualify for the Team USA Paralympic Team Trials and a shot at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo later this summer.
These are the country’s best Paralympic athletes, most of them in their 20s. Grant will enter the competition having just celebrated his 16th birthday — and beginning the year recovering from a near-death surgery.
“He was in real bad shape all through January, so we didn’t know if he was going to be able to compete this spring,” Kary Pierce said. “But he just bounced right back like nothing happened. He’s truly amazing. His will power, his dedication, his determination, it’s just incredible. He has more dedication than any of us. He’s hoping to go to Paris 2024 for the Paralympic Games.”
It’s with that goal in mind that drives Grant to be so diligent with his work outs before and after track practices. He wants to build the upper-body strength to be great at the long-distance races, his specialty which he wasn’t able to showcase on Thursday.
During the regular season, he is allowed to compete against able-bodied runners in races like the 1,600 and 3,200. In fact, Grant’s season-best times in the 1,600 (4:23) and 3,200 (9:35) would both rank in the top 10 in the state this season.
“He’s gone out there against some really good distance runners and won races by 5 seconds, sometimes by 20 seconds,” McMillen said. “Every one of those runners have come up to him after and thanked him because he might have beaten them, but he helped them PR by trying to chase him down. They don’t get mad or think it’s unfair. They think it’s awesome and they can’t wait to race him again next time.”
Grant has competed for years with Wichita Adaptive Sports, where his mother is a board member, but the experience of being on a high school track and field team this season has been invaluable to Grant’s progression.
It’s why his mother fought so hard for the inclusion of wheelchair athletes.
“Before this, we would have to find for him to go to practice,” Kary Pierce said. “He didn’t have a coach. He just kind of did his own thing. So being a part of the Heights team, he now has a coach and he gets to use the track every single day. It’s made a huge difference in his endurance and his time. And besides that, it’s just as important for him to be a part of a team. He gets to hang out with his peers and do all of the things that kids get to do like win medals and go to after parties and just be a kid.”
Grant hoped the wheelchair races on Thursday in front of such a large audience brought a new level of awareness to Paralympic athletes.
At the start of the year, he didn’t know if he would see another day. On Thursday, he was nervous about entertaining a crowd of people.
“I was actually kind of a little bit stressed out,” Grant said. “I’ve been to a lot of meets before, so it wasn’t really the amount of people. But just because this was the first time us doing it, I wanted to put on a good show and show what I can do.”
From Pastor Jeff
Thank you, Grant, for being such an inspiration to all of us! We, along with your family, are incredibly proud of you and look forward to what God has in store for you!
If you would like to send Grant a note, here is his address:
Grant Pierce, 6838 E 14th St N, Wichita, KS 67206