When he gets on the soccer field and runs freely, sprinting past defenders, finding the back of the net for a goal, it’s another win over cerebral palsy for Gavin Kohner.
The Phoenix Northwest Christian senior forward/midfielder, 18, diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was a year old and living with braces until he was 12, learned to adjust every step of the way to embrace what he has now.
He signed his college national letter of intent this week with Clemson to play on its Paralympic soccer team, which was a result of his being a part of the U.S. Paralympic team since he was 15.
He is Northwest Christian’s second-leading scorer, and, after sitting out Tuesday’s 3A first-round game, he’ll be able to return to the field for Saturday’s 2 p.m., state quarterfinal game at home against Phoenix Country Day.
“My freshman year is when I really picked it up,” he said. “I had a lot more confidence in myself. I started playing club again. When I realized I was doing good with that, that’s when my confidence really picked up.”
But it was a long, winding haul to find a way to free himself from the restrictions that came with cerebral palsy.
Tim Kohner knew something was wrong with his oldest son after he was born when he couldn’t hold his head up.
When Gavin began crawling, he could only use one arm.
Tim and his wife Jenna took Gavin to a neurologist, who diagnosed him with cerebral palsy.
“We threw everything at the wall to see what sticks,” Tim said.
They tried everything. The did Botox therapy to reduce muscle spastics. When he was 10, they took him to Germany for stem cell therapy. That usually is for more severe cases.
“Gavin is blessed to that he’s close to not having it, but he has it enough to where it affects him athletically,” Tim said. “We wanted to give him something that would help him athletically. That didn’t really help too much.”
Then, when he was in the seventh grade, Gavin went to Boston Children’s Hospital to see what kind of surgeries he would need to elongate the muscles so that he wouldn’t have to walk without a brace.
In the seventh grade, he underwent a long surgical procedure in San Diego so that he could run and play without a special shoe and braces.
“It was tough at times but I learned to accept it, move on from there and try to do as much as I could,” Gavin said about growing up with cerebral palsy.
Gavin said he wasn’t required to wear braces when he played soccer. But off the field walking around and in bed a night when he slept, he wore braces on his right leg and arm.
The surgery he said lengthened his Achilles tendon, moved a couple of bones, shaved them down, so now he’s able to walk with the heel-toe stride on his right foot.
“It was a good year until I could start walking again,” Gavin said.
During that time, a nurse recommended that Gavin try soccer for the Paralympic team. He was the youngest on the team at age 15, traveling around the world with the U.S. Paralympic team.
He was on a team that included players in their 20s. Through Paralympic soccer, they teamed up with Clemson to train and compete with their players. Every Olympics are followed by the Paralympics. Kohner would be a part of that.
“Unbelievable determination,” Tim said of his son. “There were down times when he thought, ‘If I had two legs, I could do this.’ But what he does with what he has is so inspiring. He’s so determined. His grades are 4.0. He works really hard for everything he’s got.”
Northwest Christian soccer coach Jeremy Witt watched a young Kohner grow in his program from a shy, tentative freshman to an always-smiling, confident senior.
“To be honest, Gavin did all this on his own,” Witt said. “We have never talked about him having CP and its never been brought up.
“Gavin doesn’t make excuses because of it. If anything, he works harder to show that it will never be an excuse for him not to accomplish what he set his mind to. He does everything we ask him and the rest of the team to do. Gavin is treated, acts, and plays just like every other guy we have on our team.”
On a 13-0-1 Northwest Christian team, Kohner, in 12 games, has scored 12 goals and assisted on four others.
He doesn’t plan on limiting himself once he gets to Clemson. He also plans to try to play for the Tigers’ NCAA Division I team.
“Maybe I’ll be able to do both, I don’t know yet,” Kohner said. “That’s what I’d like to do.”
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