April 27, 2006

Gant's Journey Leads Back to Ithaca, Slope

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I was a tomboy growing up – skinned knees, knotted hair, the works. In kindergarten, any boy that tried to kiss me on the slide got his face buried in the pea stones. By second grade, I could beat every boy in elementary school around the jogging track. I ruled the playground with my athletic prowess and brute strength, and I wasn’t afraid of anyone or anything.

All that changed in one afternoon. My dad, a lawyer, brought the family to a barbeque to celebrate a client’s settlement. This 20-year-old had jumped off a playground swing aiming for a nearby lake, and instead landed on the beach, injuring his neck and paralyzing himself from the neck down. I was mesmerized and terrified. I could not comprehend the idea that someone would never walk again. Would never write, play cat’s cradle, run, climb, or even rub his own eyes when he’s sleepy. Never again. I knew immediately that if I ever suffered a similar injury, my life would be over. I would be lost, without purpose and motivation. I’ve been afraid of a spinal cord injury ever since.

Khaliq Gant is nothing like me. He woke up on the morning of Jan. 24 a normal college sophomore and a guard on the men’s basketball team. That night, he was in a bed in the ICU of Arnot Ogden Medical Center in Elmira, N.Y., after collision in practice. The doctors told him he had dislocated two vertebrate in his neck. They said he might walk again, but nobody knew when, or how much physical therapy and rehabilitation it would take to get him back on his feet.

I would have pulled a Nancy Kerrigan and wailed, “Why me?” He asked for his iPod and some food, and traded jokes with his concerned teammates.

He went through a seven-hour surgery to take bone from his hip and use it to fuse his vertebrate together. Then, he was flown by an air ambulance from Elmira to Atlanta, Ga., where he spent two months living at the Shepherd Spinal Center and undergoing physical and occupational therapy every day. His astonishing will to heal led his physical therapist, Amanda Lyons, to tell assistant coach Zach Spiker, “I fully expect him to be a walker.” This was on March 9. Just two weeks later, he welcomed friends and teammates from Cornell, and proved Lyons right by walking from the dinner table to the restroom with just his father’s arm for support.

He attended NCAA tournament games at the Georgia Dome, and watched others play basketball – something that might never again be part of his everyday life. When Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Wade Boggs, and Lou Gehrig retired, they cried – and they had years, even decades, to play the sport they loved. Khaliq’s time on the court was cut short well before his time, but he hasn’t wasted a minute feeling sorry for himself. Instead, he organized wheelchair races in the hallway of the Shepherd Center. He dedicated himself to regaining what the rest of take us for granted – balance and coordination.

Rather than an Ivy League banner or a championship ring, his rewards come through small milestones like crossing the street without any help at all. One week from tomorrow, he’ll mark another victory.

Khaliq will be here for Slope Day.

Ever since the incident, his father has said that Khaliq saw this experience as an opportunity to answer a higher calling. I say, consider it done. I see the effect of Khaliq’s willpower, spirit and heart when Spiker chokes up and says he can’t even talk about the progress Khaliq has made. I feel it writing this column, when chills race up and down my spine at the thought of running into Khaliq on the Slope.

I hear it in head coach Steve Donahue’s voice when he says, “Never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d be going down and picking him up this early.”

The musical guests that have played Slope Day in the past two years – Kanye West, O.A.R., the Game, and Snoop Dogg – have made it an unforgettable part of the Cornell experience for me. Khaliq’s return will give me more than great music and good times. He brings hope, inspiration and courage in the face of insurmountable obstacles. I think this year will be the best Slope Day yet – not because Talib Kweli and Ben Folds are visiting, but because we have the chance to welcome home one of our own.


Slope Day means graduation is just around the corner, so I have to steal a couple of column inches to send out a few goodbyes:

Eric and Erica: Thank you for your fearless leadership and setting the standard for a great board.

Zach: Thanks for football talks and writing the best Valentine’s Day column ever. Can I be your No. 2 fan girl?

Ali P.: Thanks for being the other girl in Sports, and picking fights with Chris.

Per: Welcome to the Pantheon.

Chris: All of the progress and improvement I have made is because you were there pushing me (and yelling at me and berating me) every step of the way. I hope I’ll be a worthy successor, even if I am a girl.

Brian: What can I say? I’m going to miss you. So much, I’ll probably have to retire my poster of John Cusack and put up one of you instead.

Lots of love and best of luck to you all. The Sun won’t be the same without you.

Olivia Dwyer is the Sun Sports Editor. Forever Wild has appeared every other Thursday this semester.

Archived article by Olvia Dwyer