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Children’s athletics bring out brotherly love for Long siblings
The parents of sons that are close in age know what an exhilarating, but exhausting experience two little boys can be. Sons – more so than daughters – seem to thrive with a partner in crime; the number of activities they perform together that can lead to mischief and robust physical activity can be endless, and unpredictable.
Conner Long, 9, Cayden, 7, and Cooper, 3, living with parents, Jeff and Jenny Long in White House, Tenn., are no exception. Conner has a high energy level and is constantly looking for opportunities to play with his brothers, especially Cayden, who has spastic Cerebral Palsy. Cayden non-verbal and limited in mobility.
“We’re a really close-knit family, and we spend a lot of time together,” said Jenny. “The boys are really close to us and to each other, but I could tell that Conner wanted to do a lot of things with Cayden. And Cayden can’t just get up and go outside.”
But a unique opportunity would present itself to the Long brothers with the potential to be a lifelong bonding experience. In the spring of 2011, Conner saw an ad in a Nashville Parent’s Magazine that advertised a kids’ triathlon, which is essentially a scaled-down version of the adult triathlon event with running, swimming and cycling. Conner’s first thought was that this event would be an ideal undertaking for himself, and his brother. Something they both could participate in, together.
“I really wanted to go to the triathlon, and my parents said ‘Yes’,” said Conner, who is in the fourth grade.
“They have found their love together, their passion. Ever since that first race they bonded on a different level and I can’t even explain it.”
– Jenny Long, mother
And with the turn of that magazine page, Team Long Brothers was born. Jenny consulted with Mandy Gildersleeve, a youth triathlon coach from Florida, for assistance in acquiring equipment and for a better understanding of race demands.
At that triathlon – the Nashville Kids Triathlon – on June 5, 2011, Conner tugged his brother in a raft for the 100-yard swim. He then biked alone during the hilly portion of a three-mile cycling trek while Gildersleeve pulled Cayden’s trailer alongside her bike, against Conner’s wish. After the last hill, Cayden’s trailer was transferred to Conner’s bike so they could complete the three-mile cycling requirements together. Then Conner pushed his brother’s stroller for the remaining half-mile run to finish their first race in an impressive 43 minutes and 10 seconds.
Jenny explained, it was the first time they finished anything, together.
“They have found their love together, their passion,” said Jenny, describing that the boys completed the race with an excited, but determined, expression on Conner’s face while Cayden was laughing. “Ever since that first race they bonded on a different level and I can’t even explain it.”
The Nashville event became the first of several triathlons and marathons for the brothers.
“As we attended more events, there were none – or very few – children with special needs that were taking part,” said Jeff. “That’s something we’d like to see change – I can’t say how much this has done for Conner and Cayden, and our family.”
In the beginning
It was when Cayden turned about two months old that Jenny felt her new baby wasn’t meeting his developmental milestones in the same way her first born had. She noticed that Cayden’s eyes were crossing and that his head seemed small. After a trip to a pediatrician and a neurologist, the baby underwent a series of tests, and the new parents received a diagnosis: Cayden had Cerebral Palsy, and microcephaly, a condition that results in a smaller head circumference.
After the diagnosis, Jenny wondered how Cayden’s condition – he is non-verbal yet communicative, and uses a wheelchair yet mobile – would affect her growing family. But amid a laundry list of uncertainties, one aspect that was apparent was that her sons were close. And little by little, Cayden’s condition was treated as a surmountable challenge within the family unit.
“There are some challenges,” she said. “But Cayden is always included; if they go to the roller rink, Cayden rolls along. As much as Conner can go, Cayden will go. They both like to fish with their father. For Cayden, it’s not about the actual fishing – he likes to be outside in a social situation with his father and his brother.”
Cayden is now in the first grade and attends public school. He takes part in special education and mainstreams with other first graders for gym, art, library and recess. In addition, he attends physical, speech and occupation therapies outside of school.
Jenny said Cayden is somewhat mobile, enjoys crawling, and can get in and out of his chair. However, because of weakness in his legs and the amount of assistance he needs, Cayden is more independent at this time when he uses his chair. He is learning sign language.
Cayden’s relationship with Conner has flourished despite differences in ability.
“We’re teaching our children that every child is different,” Jenny said. “We tell him that it’s important to appreciate who a person is on the inside stride.”
That’s how the Long family approaches each day, she added.
“It’s a day-to-day thing. We’re thankful for the day,” she said. “Perspective is about the smile on Cayden’s face.
When my boys tell me that they have nothing to do, I tell them they have a lot to do. It teaches you to be grateful. And at the end of the day, Cayden still has a smile on his face.”
“What I like best about it is that we’re together, and I don’t have to do it by myself. Without Cayden it wouldn’t be a team,” said Conner. “I didn’t want Cayden left on the sidelines because it isn’t fair towards him.”
“I don’t know what I would do without Cayden. I just want him to finish,” said Conner who wants everyone to know it is not about winning, but having fun.
In several media interviews about their athletic endeavors, Conner takes the opportunity to create awareness of his brother’s impairment.
“He still has regular feelings like we do and he understands what you say about him,” Conner said when asked about his brother’s physical impairment and inability to verbalize. “When I see him smiling and laughing that means he’s having a good time.”
His love for Cayden extends to his younger brother, as well. Maybe when Cooper is bigger he will join the brothers, Conner added.
Their team spirit and brotherly bond have not gone unnoticed. Last December, Team Long Brothers was awarded the 2012 Sports Illustrated Kids SportsKid of the Year award.
“Each kid has an individual story that on its own maximizes the most out of what sports should be,” said Bob Der, managing editor of Sports Illustrated Kids magazine. The award is given to individuals that achieve in school, make a difference with their athletic success, and use sports as a vehicle to draw attention to an opportunity.
Since the Nashville Kids Triathlon, Conner and Cayden have participated in over fourteen athletic events, including the New England Kids Triathlon in Cambridge, Mass.; the Holland Elementary 5K in Holland, Mass.; the Kids Triathlon, Inc. in Jacksonville, Fla.; and the 2011 IronKids Alpharetta Triathlon, Alpharetta, Geo.
At the Holland Elementary 5K in May 2012, the Longs had an opportunity to meet Rick and Dick Hoyt, the father-son team that has taken part in athletic events together for more than 30 years. Rick, the son, has spastic quadriplegia with Cerebral Palsy. The two teams were joined by Team Rossiter Sisters (Briley, 10, and Ainsley, 7) to cross the finish line, together.
“It was really inspiring to us to see that they (Team Hoyt) had been doing this so long,” said Jenny.
In addition to raising their young sons, the Longs hope to launch their nonprofit to help remove barriers that children with disabilities often encounter soon.
“We would like to start raising money for children with disabilities to participate in triathlons and marathons,” Jeff said. “At the event in Jacksonville, we met a young girl that was an amputee, but that was it. I want to see involvement, but equipment for children with disabilities is expensive.
“We’d like to provide carts and equipment wherever we go so that everyone can participate,” he said. “We’re by no means rich. When kids with special needs are included, it’s fun, it’s therapeutic, [and] it’s a double win. Families shouldn’t be limited by income.”
The sky’s the limit – literally
Today, Cayden is taking part in other athletic outings with his family. He is enrolled to play modified T-ball for the first time, and he’s taking horseback riding lessons. He also joined his family on a hiking trip; he followed along in a small wagon. He enjoys swimming, and his family is exploring what opportunities are available for modified snow skiing.
For Conner’s part, he enjoys running, watching television, reading, and going to church with his family and friends. He said he can’t wait until the day he can take part in track meets because he genuinely enjoys the running portion of the triathlons he’s taken part in.
The duo has big plans for the future, as well.
“Ten years from now, the perfect place for me and Cayden would be – you know, how people have the American flag on the moon,” Conner said. “We would have a Team Long Brothers flag on the moon.”
Conner said that as long as he chooses to participate in athletic events, he hopes Cayden will join him.
“I can’t wait to do the Ironman with Cayden,” said Conner. “And, I want to do a full marathon – all 26.2 miles.” The IRONMAN World Championship race that Cayden refers is widely considered a premiere endurance race that combines the three toughest endurance races in Hawaii; the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile marathon. Befitting to Team Long is the IRONMAN’s well known mantra “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.”
Inspirational video footage
of Team Long Brothers
There’s an old saying that the measure of a person’s life is measured by how much they are loved. There’s no doubt about it: our relationships with others are the cornerstone of our ability to thrive and enjoy life. Relationships allow us to explore all of the facets of giving and receiving love, from the patient and protective concern shown between a parent and child to the fire and chemistry that happens between friends, mates and spouses. And the level of ability has nothing to with the level of love one is willing to give to or receive from another.