Eleven-year-old Conner Long of White House, Tennessee, has always loved the outdoors and being active, but he knew there was something missing. His 9-year-old brother, Cayden, has hypertonic cerebral palsy, which renders him unable to walk or speak, so he couldn’t play or compete with him. Still, Conner wanted to find a way for Cayden to be able to participate, and their opportunity came in the form of a kid’s triathlon when Conner was seven and Cayden was five. “We saw it in a local parenting magazine, and Conner asked, ‘Can I do it?’ I told him, ‘Sure, I don’t see why not,’” says Jenny Long, mother of Conner, Cayden and their 4-year-old brother, Cooper. “Then he asked, ‘Well, can Cayden do it?’ I didn’t want to say yes, but I really didn’t want to say no.” Long got in contact with the triathlon organizers and cleared it with them. “They said it was fine, and they seemed just as enthusiastic as we were about it!” Long recalls. With determination and planning, using wheelchairs and small tugboats, Cayden was able to do all of the events with his brother. “I don’t like the word ‘disability’….It’s a different ability,” Long says when discussing how much Conner wanted Cayden to be able to do the things he could do. “Now both have become stronger individuals. Cayden is getting out and doing things, and Conner sees that people are accepting of his brother.”
Today, Conner and Cayden have completed “well over 20 kids’ triathlons” together, as well as many other races such as local 5Ks and Fun Runs. Long acknowledges that no two events are the same. “Each race brings a different memory, struggle and challenge that they face. Racing now is harder. Cayden is nine and almost outgrowing Conner. They did one race and it was almost all uphill in the dead of summer. Conner was saying ‘I don’t think I can do this,’ and I didn’t want to push him too hard. At the same time, there’s that mom in me that’s encouraging them to keep going.” But to her, it’s absolutely worth it. “They’ve traveled and seen so much together. People have to realize it’s about more than winning. It’s about giving your heart and giving your all.”
The Longs have been getting attention from media outlets and celebrities around the world, from Japanese reporters to basketball superstar LeBron James. Still, Long knows it’s a delicate balance. “The first year, it blew up. We were so eager to spread awareness, but it was overwhelming for the boys. We had to back off a little and let them enjoy what they love to do and have fun with it. It shouldn’t be a job. We have to keep an eye on it and make sure it remains more fun for them than it is business.”
Thankfully, Conner and Cayden are getting more chances to simply play together these days with the help of an all-inclusive park donated to their community by Miracle Recreation. “The park is just amazing. It brings the community together; there’s no separation,” Long says. Conner served as chair of Miracle Recreation’s “Not So Bored of Directors” to design the park, along with former NASA astronaut Terence “Tom” Henricks, Olympic gymnast Katie Currier and occupational therapist Dr. Zoe Mailloux. “Conner wanted to make sure Cayden had as good a time at the park as everyone else. He wanted to make sure the park wasn’t labeled as ‘special needs’ and was a park where everyone could use it,” Long says. Conner named the playground “Roll Around the Park” in honor of Cayden. “I was absolutely blown away by it,” Long proudly admits. “Conner came up with the name all by himself.” And Cayden’s favorite part? “It’s really just being able to go there and get around. Sometimes he doesn’t even want to be on the equipment. One of the things he loves most is just being there, and being around everyone. He loves the ramps. It makes him feel a part of things and not excluded.”
Still, the Longs realize that places such as parks can’t be this accessible for every person with special needs. “Gosh, I would love to see every park being inclusive,” Long says. When asked how parks can do that, she had one immediate suggestion. “Get rid of the mulch! If you have a wheelchair, you cannot roll around mulch.”
Long is aware some people argue that there are issues park professionals may face when trying to accommodate individuals with special needs, but she is firm that the benefits for everyone outweigh any inconveniences. “Communities need to think outside the box,” she says. “Everyone in this world is different, and every family is unique. Don’t think everyone on this planet and in your community is walking on two legs. It should be mandatory, really. Every city should have some kind of code so that their playgrounds are fully accessible, but it’s a work in progress. And you know, it really is easier to be inclusive than to not be. It just takes the willingness and the knowledge to do it. Miracle Recreation is doing great things with this so people can see it is possible to make things fully accessible. Maybe we’ll start getting more of these playgrounds everywhere.”
The Longs understand the need for local accessibility, since they used to have to drive an hour away from their home to Nashville just to find a park that the whole family could use. “Now we have one in our own community, and it really feels like our community. Community means being together, so one family can’t be subjected to the house all the time. We need to think about how families are all different, and you have to remember that there might be families that are scared to come out in the community because it’s not accessible for them. We didn’t do a lot before, because there just wasn’t a lot to do. Then, when the boys started racing, it opened up doors for the whole family, and we were able to watch all of our children participate. Whatever way we can be involved, we’re involved, and I’m sure that’s every parent’s wish — I know it’s my wish.”
After Conner and Cayden were named the Sports Illustrated for Kids 2012 Sports Kids of the Year and had the park donated in their honor April 12, 2014, the Long family is still trying to promote inclusiveness. “We’ve started a branch here of a national nonprofit called myTEAM TRIUMPH that provides equipment for individuals with special needs so they can take part in races too. That’s big in our house right now. And it’s not about having 50 people in your division. If we can change just one person’s life, that’s enough for us,” Long says.
Perhaps the most amazing thing is that every day, the Longs continue encouraging positive change. “It’s all about the awareness and doing what you like,” Long says. “We have our imperfections and our challenges. We’re like any other family, and if our family can promote awareness and do these things, anyone can, because we’re just like anyone else living. You have to follow your heart and just keep going. There are hard times with it; there are good times with it. You have to live with that passion, and people will see that. I think inspiration is very contagious.”
Marissa Bracamonte is the Editorial Intern for Parks & Recreation Magazine.