September 8, 2006

Gant Returns to Cornell With New Perspective

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Khaliq Gant is back in town.
The junior has picked up right where he left off — taking care of R.A. duties in South Baker Hall, working out with the men’s basketball team and taking classes like every other student.
But take a closer look, and the signs of what he’s been through in the past eight months become apparent. He has some trouble walking — nothing major, he just has to leave a little earlier than everyone else to walk to class — and there’s a three-inch scar on the right side of his neck. They hint at what he’s been through: a collision during a practice last January that dislocated two vertebrate in his neck, followed by two separate airlifts, a seven-hour surgery, and months of inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation at the Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta.
The doctors weren’t sure if he’d ever walk again. But even when he was sitting in a wheelchair whose movements he controlled by sipping and puffing through a straw, Khaliq never doubted he’d eventually get back on his feet.
“You obviously are frustrated when you can’t do certain things, but I guess I’m used to having a goal to reach and getting frustrated along the way,” he said. “So it wasn’t a big deal and I wasn’t deterred from trying to reach my goal.”
The mundane activities that fully mobile people take for granted became impossible to achieve on his own. After living independently from his parents for nearly five years — first at the Tabor Academy in Massachusetts and then at Cornell — Khaliq depended on them to complete tasks as simple as lifting food from his plate to his mouth. If he had trouble falling asleep, the best he could do to get comfortable was to think about tossing and turning. He could feel itches, but he couldn’t move his hand to scratch them. If someone put his iPod on for him, his only option was shuffle.
When he couldn’t get away from the world, he’d have to shut it out. To sleep through the night, he used ear plugs and an eye mask to block out the noises of the hospital and minimize the disturbance of midnight visits from the nurses.
During the days, he threw himself into a training routine. But instead of running sprints on the hardcourt or shooting endless jump shots, the workout consisted of learning how to walk again, first with a harness holding him up and then with the support of rails and a trainer. There used to be film and box scores to show him how to beat the opponent; now he was fighting himself, pushing the limits of his body each and every day.
“I guess it’s different from someone else’s perspective,” he said of the experience. “But when you’re going through something it’s just kind of like when you study hard for a test and you get an A. Everyone else is like, ‘Oh, how’d you do that?’ You’re like, ‘Well, I studied.’ It was a natural process.”
What was natural to him flew in the face of everything the doctors had predicted. Instead of years, it took months for him to walk again. By Spring Break, he could get up from the dinner table and walk to the bathroom unaided. He was here for Slope Day — just like he’d planned since his sudden departure in January. He might be a semester behind right now, but, as he points out, who could be upset about having to stay in college a little longer?
“I believe that everything happens for a reason,” Khaliq said. “Just learn from what happened — not be down and everything like that, just realize it was happening and [that] you’re supposed to learn from it.”
What are the lessons in a situation like this? How does an athlete find a positive when the sport that’s been the center of his life for so long is taken away? For Khaliq, it’s all a matter of perspective.
“I remember the first time I went to the gym after I got out of the hospital. It was sad just because I couldn’t go out and play, but I guess I’ve gotten used to it, the fact that I can’t play yet but I’ll be able to eventually,” he said. “It’s an adjustment. I have a different perspective now, so I appreciate the fact that those guys can play and that I can help them out in certain ways.”
He’s there to cheer and heckle during preseason pick-up. Once games get under way, he’ll most likely help out as a student manager or assistant. When the team hits the weight room, he’s in there with them. Maybe he’s squatting 135 pounds instead of 410 — his personal best before Jan. 24 — but his ultimate goal is suiting up and stepping out on the court for Cornell once again. Right now, his shoulders are still to weak to hoist a jump shot, but after what he’s been through, he knows no challenge is too great if he sets his mind to it and doesn’t sweat the small stuff that clutters the way. Until then, Khaliq knows he can help his teammates just by being there — providing unspoken inspiration in return for the support and love they and countless others have shared with him.
And it’s not just his teammates to whom he’s returning the favor. People stop him in the street or come up to him in Gannett just to welcome him back and let him know how glad they are to see him.
It’s a miracle, his coaches say.
No, Khaliq says, just hard work.
“I don’t know if there’s ever really a point where you’re satisfied,” he said. “There’s always something you want to improve upon.”
Nothing extraordinary, nothing superhuman. Just the faith that if he can envision it, he can make it happen.

Olivia Dwyer is the Sun Sports Editor. Forever Wild will appear every other Friday this semester.