It’s the last wrestling postseason for Hunter Garstin as an Independence (Franklin, Tenn.) senior, and it would have been his fourth as a competitor.
He will not watch, even though he remains close to coach Jared Grindstaff and the wrestling program, and despite the fact that friend and Region 6-AAA Wrestler of the Year Brady Ingram is going after a state championship. Garstin might have been right there with him.
“I have no doubt he could have been a very successful wrestler,” Grindstaff said of Hunter, whose father is a former standout at Brentwood Academy and Appalachian State. “What he’s done instead has been absolutely amazing.”
The made-for-TV story here would be the former athlete, paralyzed in competition and now chipping in to the team as a volunteer coach and source of inspiration. The reality is an 18-year-old who would do anything – and is trying everything – to walk again and can’t really be around the sport anymore.
“I’ve needed to distance myself from it,” Hunter said. “I love Coach (Grindstaff) and everything, love the team, but it’s just, I don’t know. Watching it is a post-traumatic stress disorder kind of thing for me. It’s just hard to watch, and sometimes I think back on the accident.”
That happened Dec. 7, 2013, in a tournament at Huntsville High, an awkward landing while grappling with an opponent and a dislocation of the C-6 vertebra at the base of the neck. Nobody’s fault. Instant realization of a problem. Paralysis from the neck down.
“Our life changed in an instant,” said Hunter’s mother, Emily Garstin.
“It was just like someone unplugged the light in the wall, and everything just stopped,” Hunter said of an injury that was witnessed by his father, Christian Garstin. “I could feel it, right at that moment, like my brain was just disconnected from everything.”
After emergency surgery to fuse the C-6 and C-7 vertebrae, a move to Shepherd Center in Atlanta and word from doctors that he probably would need a caregiver for the rest of his life, Hunter got to obliterating those expectations.
“He has blown everything away,” Grindstaff said.
Hunter has use of his upper body, with some impairment of his fingers – he can text but can’t pinch objects or play video games – and he has some sensation in his legs. He does not have enough strength to stand but is doing what he can to acquire it.
He does physical therapy sessions six days a week at the YMCA in Franklin. Starting next week, he will have a two-week stint at Shepherd to make sure he is ready for college.
Already, he has attained the independence doctors said he wouldn’t have. He drives and he will be off to Middle Tennessee State in the fall to study psychology.
His progress has been “unusual, remarkable and inspiring, mainly because of the perseverance he’s shown as an athlete,” Emily said.
And it has been aided by frequent trips back to Atlanta, for sessions at both Shepherd and Project Walk recovery center. He has been to Switzerland three times for stem-cell therapy.
He had bone marrow removed and then injected back into his body with the stem cells, at a cost of $20,000 per session. The first trip was covered by fundraising, with donors from all over the world.
The first two trips made more of an impact than the third. Hunter took his first steps in 2014, on an underwater treadmill at H3O Aquatics in Murfreesboro, shortly after the first stem-cell session.
But Hunter does not believe in stagnation. And there is really no choice in his mind. You either keep training at a brisk pace or risk letting your muscles atrophy.
He keeps working, the squats he does each day at the Y while gripping a bar with all his strength counting as the most difficult of his therapy endeavors.
“I would probably do anything to walk again,” Hunter said.
He also realizes that might not happen, because this is not a movie. This is a story that first gripped greater Nashville three years ago, and hopefully a few years from now it will be the story of a C-6 paraplegic who has overcome long odds to walk again.
If not, it’s already the story of a young person who has responded as positively as could ever be expected to a cruelly unfair break. And of a community that has responded with him – YMCA patrons, the wrestling team and others have helped pay for therapy sessions, and about 19,000 folks are following along with Hunter on Facebook.
“We still get emails and letters,” said Emily, a kindergarten teacher who tutors on the side to try to keep up with the therapy bills. “We’re so happy and proud to be from this area, with so many people who care. That’s a big reason Hunter keeps going, because people keep encouraging him.”
Hunter always wanted to be a marine biologist, but the events of the past four years have convinced him to go into psychology. Counseling has helped him through this. And he has provided it – to families in similar situations who have sought out the Garstins, and to new patients at Shepherd when he returns for physical therapy.
“To help people, I think it’s my calling,” he said.
Hunter has had to deal with emotional ups and downs on this journey that only he can fully understand. In the early days after the injury, he would wake up terrified, thinking he couldn’t move because someone had buried him under heavy objects.
Then he tried getting involved again with wrestling on the sidelines, but that didn’t work for him. He had to get away.
That doesn’t mean he won’t inspire the Eagles this week. And they shouldn’t be the only ones.
“You’ve got to show people that this doesn’t have to control you or beat you down,” Hunter said. “Life is what you make it. If you want to sit there and be miserable about your situation for your whole life, well, that’s up to you. That won’t be me.”