Challenged Athletes Foundation hosted reportedly its first-ever virtual 2020 Heroes of Sport Celebration on May 5. The live premiere featured surprise moments from professional athletes like Drew Brees, Andre Agassi, Bill Walton, Jimmie Johnson, Elena Delle Donne and the Golden State Warriors, as well as CAF Ambassadors, who all presented grants and words of positivity to CAF’s challenged athletes.
Hosted by CAF co-founder Bob Babbitt, IRONMAN Hall of Famer and USA Triathlon Hall of Famer, the showcase honored athletes with permanent physical challenges and included some of the following memorable moments, according to a media release from CAF:
- NFL Quarterback sensation Drew Brees “surprise Skyped” 14-year-old CAF grant recipient Calder Hodge, a high school quarterback and double amputee who dreams of playing in the NFL.
- NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton delivered a message of hope, health and community to CAF athletes and CAF supporters.
- Tennis legend Andre Agassi sent a special message to 12-year-old Max Wong, of Flushing, New York, who was granted a new custom tennis wheelchair.
- NCAA’s first-ever Division 1 bilateral amputee track and field athlete, Hunter Woodhall, challenged Philadelphia youth athletes Jack Cunningham and Chase Merriweather to a virtual running race.
- Team USA Paralympic wheelchair basketball players Megan Blunk, Rose Hollermann, Bailey Moody and Darlene Hunter, and two-time WNBA MVP, Elena Delle Donne, delighted sisters Oliver and Willow Weidenhammer, who were born with spina bifida.
- Personal videos from MLB’s Eric Byrnes, NASCAR legend Jimmie Johnson, NHL Head Coach Anaheim Ducks Dallas Eakins, the Golden State Warriors, Sarah Reinertsen, Scout Basset and more.
“In the next hour, you will witness the healing power of sport as we share the incredible work of the Challenged Athletes Foundation,” said Babbitt as he introduced the event. “Every one of us has been navigating our way through this pandemic in our own ways – at times difficult and other times, even joyous.”
He shared some online moments detailing how physically challenged athletes are powering through these challenging times and refusing to give up, despite the obstacles in their way. The 2020 Heroes of Sport Celebration aired intentionally on #GivingTuesdayNow, a global day of unity to raise funds for the unprecedented need caused by COVID-19.
Heartwarming Celebrity Moments
Calder Hodge, a 14-year-old grant recipient, football quarterback and a double amputee since age 2, was surprised by NFL Quarterback from the New Orleans Saints, Drew Brees via “surprise Skype.” Calder dreams of being the first amputee quarterback in the NFL. The segment also included Alex Ruiz, a former high school quarterback who lost his leg as a result of a football-related injury.
“Calder, welcome to the QB Brotherhood and the CAF Family,” Brees said, the release continues. “I can’t wait to watch you play, I’m gonna be keeping track of you and watching you get back at it.”
NBA Legend and Hall of Famer, Bill Walton, is a long-time CAF ambassador. He knows how important sport is in peoples’ lives – and he also knows what it’s like to have that taken away after facing his own life-threatening physical challenges. He’s been given another chance to participate in the sports he loves, and continues to power through and help other challenged athletes leverage the power and value of sport.
“People need participation in sports. They need to be a part of a team and build their own individual foundation of health.”
Tennis icon Andre Agassi joined the line-up with some memorable words for 12-year-old Max Wong, of Flushing, New York, who received a grant for a new tennis wheelchair. Max is a rising wheelchair tennis player with goals of playing at an elite level. He became paralyzed from the waist down at 2 years old after a laminectomy was performed to remove a spinal cord tumor.
“I wanted to congratulate you on your CAF 2020 grant. You’ll be unstoppable now, and I wish you the best of luck in your training,” Agassi said. “I hope you go as far as your dreams want you to go. Never stop working hard.” Agassi was a close friend of Robin Williams, who created an endowment fund for CAF athletes before he passed away in 2014. Max’s grant was made possible by the Robin Williams Endowment Fund.
University of Arkansas’ Hunter Woodhall, reportedly the first double-below knee amputee to receive a Division 1 scholarship, has become a role model for many youth athletes. A CAF Hero of Sport, Hunter virtually challenged two bilateral amputee runners to a race. Recent grant recipients Jack Cunningham (13) and Chase Merriweather (10) of Philadelphia raced the NCAA hero down their empty streets. Woodhall encouraged them along the way while calling the play-by-play from his home in Arkansas.
“You boys wanna go on a virtual run?” Woodhall asked. “Looking strong man!”
Team USA Paralympic wheelchair basketball athlete Megan Blunk hopped on the line with Baltimore sisters, Olive (7) and Willow (11) Weidenhammer, who were both born with spina bifida and use wheelchairs for mobility and their favorite sport, basketball. The Paralympian surprised them on the call with several of her Team USA teammates, who recently had to put their Paralympic dreams on hold for another year. As an added bonus, a special appearance from WNBA star Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics congratulated both of them on their new adaptive sports equipment.
“I hear you are both rising stars in wheelchair basketball and racing, and now your new adaptive sports equipment is going to make you both unstoppable,” Donne said.
On behalf of CAF, Coach Steve Kerr and the Golden State Warriors presented first-time applicant, Devan Watkins of Menlo Park, Calif, with a customized basketball wheelchair. Watkins, age 12, was diagnosed with a spinal cord tumor in 2017 that resulted in paraplegia and some upper extremity impairment. Since discovering wheelchair basketball in the Bay Area, he has shown improvement in his physical and mental health.
With another surprise from the professional sports world, Anaheim Ducks Head Coach, Dallas Eakins, shared some profound words with blind hockey athlete, Tim Kane of Michigan. “Your story will inspire many going forward. I want to wish you luck in the future.”
Kane lost his vision at the age of 12 to a genetic condition. He tried out for National Blind Hockey, where he earned a place on the Team USA Roster with the ultimate goal of participating in the next Paralympics.
Throughout the program, CAF continually showcased how lives are transformed by the power of sport. Orange County healthcare worker Becky Hui lost her right leg to cancer. The first-time grant recipient was recently contacted by CAF mentor and Triathlete legend, Sarah Reinertsen, while starting the process of getting fitted for her prosthetic. Becky is among many other CAF frontline workers who were recognized as heroes during the pandemic.
Paralympic gold medalist and CAF ambassador, Scout Bassett, enjoyed moments with Idaho grant recipient, Kenasyn Bird (8), who has been overcoming obstacles with just one leg since she was only 1 year old. “I cannot wait to see what more you’ll continue to do. I know you’ll be an incredible athlete and person,“ Bassett shared, per the release.
Former MLB star Eric Byrnes, legendary NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson, and Pro cyclist and Professional Triathlete Cam Wurf also joined in on the show to congratulate the CAF 2020 recipients.
CAF 2020 Grant Distribution
For more than 26 years, CAF has provided grants for the adaptive sports equipment, training, and competition expenses needed to participate and compete, and CAF camps and clinics provide critical instruction and community needed to thrive. This past March, CAF distributed a record-breaking 3,921 individual athlete grants made possible by last year’s fundraising.
Through the 2020 grant distribution, challenged athletes in 50 states and 42 countries are receiving a variety of grants representing $5.9 million in support. Without this critical funding, participation in sports would be unattainable due to the high cost of adaptive sports equipment and limited opportunities to practice and compete. From first-time applicants to elite athletes playing at the highest level of their sport, the 2020 grant recipients range from 3 to 95 years old.
For more information and to contribute grant funds, visit Challenged Athletes Foundation.
[Source(s): Challenged Athletes Foundation, GlobeNewswire]