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2012 SportsKids Of The Year: Conner and Cayden Long

What if someone you loved couldn’t play sports? He or she couldn’t feel what it’s like to catch a pop fly, see a shot hit the back of a soccer net, or cross a finish line.

Conner Long is nine years old. His little brother Cayden is seven. But Cayden can’t do a lot of things his big brother can do. At four months old, Cayden was diagnosed with a condition called hypertonic cerebral palsy, which leaves him unable to walk or talk on his own. Playing sports is a great way for brothers to bond, but it seemed to be out of the question for the Longs — until Conner had an idea.

A year and a half ago, he and Cayden started participating in triathlons together. Conner swims while pulling Cayden in a raft, bikes with his little brother towed behind him in a trailer, and pushes that trailer when they run. Over the past 18 months, the pair from White House, Tennessee, traveled up and down the East coast to compete in races. Seeing the brothers working together has inspired onlookers, while bringing Conner and Cayden closer than ever. Their amazing determination and spirit is why the Long brothers are the 2012 Sports Illustrated Kids SportsKids of the Year.

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[2012 SportsKid Of the Year Finalists]

A Simple Plan
It was spring of 2011, and Conner’s and Cayden’s mom, Jenny, was flipping through an issue of Sumner Parent magazine. As Conner looked over his mom’s shoulder, an advertisement caught his eye. It was for an event for kids that included swimming, biking, and running: the Nashville Kids Triathlon. Conner asked his mom if he could try it. Then he asked if Cayden could do it too. “You never want to tell your kid no,” Jenny remembers, “but . . .”

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[Photos from the Sportsman Awards Gala]

Conner insisted, and the Longs decided they would find a way to get it done. They talked to race organizers, and they reached out to Mandy Gildersleeve, a youth triathlon coach from Florida, who helped them get the necessary equipment for the race.

That first race together, in June 2011, started with 100 yards of swimming. (The swimming leg was Cayden’s favorite, as he laughed and smiled the whole way.) Gildersleeve carried Cayden out of the raft and to the trailer for the hilly three-mile biking leg of the race. In this race, Conner would bike alone while Gildersleeve rode alongside him with Cayden hitched to her bike. Conner didn’t like that arrangement one bit. The whole ride he kept telling Gildersleeve to let Cayden ride with him. Finally, after they cleared one last large hill, Cayden’s trailer was hitched to Conner’s bike. “And he just took off,” Gildersleeve remembers.

Then came the half-mile run, and after a total of 43 minutes and 10 seconds, the Long brothers crossed the finish line, with Cayden smiling in his trailer and Conner triumphantly pumping his fists in the air. “That was my favorite moment,” says Conner. “Because I knew we could finish that race.”

Since then, Conner and Cayden have competed in a total of 14 races, from triathlons to fun runs. When they go to races now, they are celebrities. People approach them for pictures, or simply stop to tell them how inspiring they are. Their Facebook page is filled with encouraging messages from strangers, some of them parents of special needs kids.

Many see Conner as a hero, but he doesn’t quite understand the hype. For him, these races are just a chance for him and his little brother to have some fun. “When we went out for the first race this season,” Conner says, “Cayden [had a look on his face] like ‘I’m so happy to be back out here, I can’t believe we had to wait this long!’”

And Cayden definitely has fun. He smiles and giggles throughout races. He’s even become a bit of a prankster. “We were warming up for a race once, and Cayden was really interested in this bright-colored van across the street,” says Gildersleeve. “He started to wheel himself towards it, so I said ‘Cayden, please stop.’ Instead he just started going faster. I thought I was going to have a heart attack! Right before he got to the curb, he stopped his chair. He turned around and looked at me with this huge smile and started laughing. He knew exactly what he was doing.”

Even if they don’t realize it, the Long brothers are an inspiration to others. Many people would have looked at Cayden and assumed he’d never be able to compete in a race. So when the Long brothers finish a triathlon, it’s a reminder that kids with special needs can participate in many of the same activities that other kids do everyday.

As for the future, the Long brothers have no plans to stop racing. The Long family is trying to start a non-profit organization to inspire more people, help the Longs travel to races, and, as Cayden gets bigger and heavier, upgrade their equipment.

Conner’s ultimate goal is to one day race with Cayden in Kona, Hawaii, at the Ironman World Championships. Kona is where the best in the world compete. It’s a grueling race, a 2.4-mile open water swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and finally a 26.2-mile marathon run. No one has ever finished the course in less than eight hours.

By the time they’re old enough to compete at Kona, Cayden would be a grown man. Is it even possible? Of course. It will take years of hard work and sacrifice. But the Long Brothers each have one good reason to work towards that dream: each other.

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