ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Torey Hett embodies the adage, “What doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.”
Hett, a sophomore at Marion High School, was born with spina bifida, one of the most devastating of birth defects.
“I had a hole in my spine when I was born,” Hett said. “I was LifeWatched to Wesley Medical Center in Wichita, where they immediately did surgery.”
Spina bifida results from the failure of the spine to close properly during the first month of pregnancy. No one knows what causes the condition, but some believe it may be a lack of folic acid.
“The nerves in my back were all in a ball and crumbled up, basically,” he said. “It happened to be the nerves in my legs that didn’t work.”
Jamie Shirley, Hett’s mother, said doctors talked to her about her son’s prospects.
“Every case is different,” she said, “but they did let us know he would probably walk with braces and eventually have to use a wheelchair.”
Another complication of spina bifida is hydrocephalus, which is the accumulation of fluid in the brain.
Surgeons placed a shunt in Hett’s head, allowing the fluid that accumulates in the brain to be redirected into the abdominal area.
Today, Hett is confined to a wheelchair, but the last thing this student-athlete wants is to be treated differently from any other teenager.
Yes, Hett is a student-athlete.
A member of the Marion Warrior track team, he competes in the 1,600- and 3,200-runs.
To better understand the journey Hett has traveled, one need only turn back the pages of his life a few years.
“Torey walked with braces until he was about a year and a half, and then with straight-legged braces and a walker,” Shirley said. “We could barely keep up with him.
“We just had to be careful to not let the spot on his back get bumped because there was no bone covering it,” she added. “With a little adapting here and there, we just always tried to find a way for him to still fit in.”
When Hett was 6, his parents were notified about a race in Derby for persons with disabilities.
“I raced that first time in a wheelchair that someone let me borrow,” Hett said. “I loved it, so my parents got me my own racing chair.
“I’ve been racing ever since.”
Hett first raced non-wheelchair athletes when he was in the sixth grade.
“The first year he competed with non-wheelchair athletes, we heard a lot of excuses why he couldn’t compete,” Shirley said. “They’d use the no-bicycles-on-the-rubber-track excuse.”
Hett’s racing career took a pit stop when he was in the eighth grade and had to undergo surgery to place a metal rod in his back to correct his scoliosis, a curvature of the spine.
After recovering from the successful procedure, Hett was once back on track-literally.
Hett’s racing wheelchair resembles a drag racer. The chair has two large wheels on the back that are cambered, or angled, and one small wheel on the front rather than the usual two.
“I’m a lot more scrunched up in the racing chair, and I fit a lot tighter in it,” he said.
Hett steers with a rigging that allows him to turn the corners and then straighten out for the straightaways.
Hett estimated his racing chair cost around $2,000.
For extra protection, he also wears a safety helmet similar to ones worn by professional bicycle racers.
“All the kids I know that race in wheelchairs wear them,” he said. “If we’d ever run into each other, it’d be pretty bad if we rolled.
“The school doesn’t require me to wear the helmet when racing in the school meets, but I don’t want to take a chance.”
Hett still travels to Derby every summer, and said he usually finishes in the top three.
Recently, he began competing at Edmond, Okla., in an event called the Endeavor Games. Competitors are grouped by the level of the disability and by age.
Hett is accomplished enough to have qualified for national competitions, but has yet to go because of the expense.
“If I qualify again, I hope I’m able to go,” he said. “If people want to sponsor me, I’d love to go.”
This year’s meet is will be held in Connecticut.
During the school year, Hett competes on the same track as his Marion classmates.
“We train every day after school in track practice,” he said. “We usually try to go between three and four miles.
“If I have time on the weekends, I try to go around the (Marion) lake out here,” he added. “I have a big, tall orange flag that I put on the back of my racing chair so people can see me.”
Hett’s best times are 4:43 in the 1,600, and 10:11 in the 3,200.
Finding time to train is a challenge. He recently began working at the local lumberyard, plus he helps his father, David, with Hett Construction business.
In addition, Hett mows lawns for several clients.
“The mower has a foot clutch, so I have to reach down with my hand to start the mower,” he said. “But it’s a hydrostatic drive, so it’s pretty easy to mow with.”
Getting from job to job isn’t an inconvenience for anyone. Hett drives his own van, equipped with hand controls.
“Tim Williams from south of town gave me a set of controls,” he said. “I took driver’s education in McPherson.
“I learned to drive on the back roads just like the rest of the kids,” he said with a smile.
For now, Hett’s primary road is the oval track. His results aren’t included in the team scores, but he still competes to win.
“I train as hard as anyone else,” he said. “There’s a deep-down, gut feeling that I just want to ask people why can’t I score points like everyone else, but I’m just glad I get to be with the other kids.”
His mother would like to see him rewarded for his achievements, too.
“Sometimes when he places and doesn’t get a medal, it hurts,” she. “He puts in the work, so he should get recognized. If he gets second, give him a second-place medal and the person that finishes right behind him (can receive) a second place medal, too.”
Many meets don’t give Hett his dues, but sometimes he is recognized.
“Some of the coaches have been outstanding,” Warrior track coach Grant Thierolf said. “The Halstead coaches sent over a first- and third-place medal for Torey to reward him.”
Hett said he notices a variety of reactions when people see him at a track meet, but all have been positive.
“A lot of the other athletes ask how I steer my chair,” he said. “People are just trying to satisfy their curiosity.”
Hett said his competitive drive comes from watching his cousins, Jared and Justin Hett, compete in football for the Warriors.
“They really inspired me to go out for a sport,” he said. “They were good football players for Marion.”
While Hett sometimes longs for the physical ability to play football, serving as the football team manager is a satisfactory substitute.
“They need me just as much as they need anyone else,” he said. “I still get to be right there with the guys.”
Because Thierolf coaches both football and track, Hett has developed a good relationship with him.
“Coach Thierolf has really supported me,” Hett said. “He encourages me to keep pushing hard and not give up.”
The admiration is mutual.
“He does like to win,” Thierolf said. “He enjoys the chance to compete. He’s gotten really competitive in the last couple years.”
Hett has aspirations of attending college and hopes to become a taxidermist someday-and to continue racing.
Hett is familiar with many game birds and animals because he also hunts deer, turkey, quail and pheasants in his spare time.
“He has a six-wheeler and goes out by himself,” Shirley said.
Hett wants people to know that he is an ordinary person who happens to be in a wheelchair.
“If anyone wants to know anything about me they can ask me,” he said.
Said Thierolf: “Torey is a real easy-going, laid-back kid who does everything any other kid his age does. He just can’t walk.”
People may be surprised to know that several well-known persons-including rock star John Mellencamp and former pro quarterback Elvis Grbac-were born with spina bifida and have overcome the effects.
“I look at some of the things others (with spina bifida) have done and I know that I can do almost anything I put my mind to,” Hett said.
The immediate goal is compete the rest of the track season and improve his times.
Hett views the proverbial glass half full, noting that he can do some things others can’t-like race in a wheelchair.
Shirley said: “I’ve had a lot of people ask me, ‘How do you do it?’ I just say, ‘Well, he’s doing it, so what choice do I have?
“When we think we have problems, we just need to look at him and see how he’s handling it and put our troubles into perspective,” she added.
Hett also knows that others with spina bifida deal with much worse disabilities than he does.
“Others have learning difficulties, but I don’t have any other problems other than I can’t use my legs,” he said.
“I got pretty lucky.”