When he arrives on the football pitch and runs free, sprinting past defenders, finding the back of the net for a goal, it’s another victory over cerebral palsy for Gavin Kohner.
Phoenix Northwest senior forward/midfielder Christian, 18, who had cerebral palsy at age one and lived with braces until age 12, learned to adapt at every step 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 being on the U.S. Paralympic team since he was 15 years old.
He is Northwest Christian’s second-leading scorer and, after sitting out Tuesday’s 3A first-round game, he will be able to return to the field for Saturday’s 2 p.m. quarter-final at home against Phoenix Country Day.
“My freshman year is where I really got it,” he said. “I had a lot more confidence in myself. I started playing club again. When I realized I was fine with that, that’s when my confidence really picked up.”
But it was a long and winding journey to find a way to break free from the restrictions associated with cerebral palsy.
Tim Kohner knew something was wrong with his eldest son after he was born when he couldn’t hold his head up high.
When Gavin started 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 against the wall to see what sticks,” Tim said.
They tried everything. They underwent Botox therapy to reduce muscle spasms. When he was 10, they took him to Germany for stem cell therapy. This is usually for the most severe cases.
“Gavin is blessed because he’s about to not have it, but he’s had enough where it affects him athletically,” Tim said. “We wanted to give him something that would help him athletically. It didn’t really help too much.”
Then, when he was in seventh grade, Gavin went to Boston Children’s Hospital to see what kind of operations he would need to lengthen the muscles so he wouldn’t have to walk without braces.
In seventh grade, he underwent lengthy surgery in San Diego so he could run and play without special shoes or suspenders.
“It was tough at times, but I learned to accept it, from there and try to do whatever I could,” Gavin said of his childhood with cerebral palsy.
Gavin said he was not required to wear braces while playing football. But off the field, walking around and in bed one night when he slept, he wore suspenders on his right leg and arm.
The operation, he said, lengthened his Achilles tendon, moved some bones, shaved them off, so now he is able to walk with the heel-toe stride on his right foot.
“It was a good year until I was able to start walking again,” Gavin said.
Meanwhile, a nurse recommended Gavin try out football for the Paralympic team. He was the youngest on the team at 15, traveling around the world with the US Paralympic team.
He was part of a team that included players in their twenties. Through Paralympic football, they partnered with Clemson to train and compete with their players. All Olympic Games are followed by the Paralympic Games. Kohner would be one of them.
“Incredible determination,” Tim said of his son. “There were 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 is so determined. His grades are 4.0. He works very hard for everything he has.
North West Christian football coach Jeremy Witt watched a young Kohner grow through his program from a shy, reluctant freshman to an ever-smiling, confident senior.
“To be honest, Gavin did all of this on his own,” Witt said. “We never talked about him having CP and it was never brought up.
“Gavin doesn’t make excuses because of it. On the contrary, he works harder to show that it will never be an excuse for him not to accomplish what he has set out to do. He does everything we ask of him. , as well as the rest of the team. Gavin is treated, acts and plays like all the other guys we have on our team.
In a 13-0-1 North West Christian side, Kohner, in 12 games, scored 12 goals and assisted four more.
He doesn’t plan to limit himself once he gets to Clemson. He also plans to try playing for the Tigers’ NCAA Division I team.
“Maybe I can do both, I don’t know yet,” Kohner said. “That’s what I would like to do.”
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