Ten-year-old Conner Long, and his brother Cayden, 8, of White House, Tennessee, love spending time together – but for these two brothers, playing isn’t as easy as just visiting a local park.
Cayden has spastic cerebral palsy and is unable to speak verbally or walk. But that hasn’t stopped the boys from becoming athletes. In 2011, after reading about the Nashville Kids Triathlon in a magazine, Conner asked his mom, Jenny Long, if he and Cayden could sign up.
“I didn’t want to say no, but didn’t want to say yes because I didn’t know how it would work out,” she told FoxNews.com.
After consulting with her husband, Jeff, they agreed to let the boys sign up – and they have been racing ever since. Triathlons are comprised of three phases: swimming, bicycling and jogging. During races, Conner pushes Cayden in a jogger while running, tows him in the jogger while cycling and pulls him on a raft while swimming.
Their efforts gained the brothers national attention – and in 2012, they were named SportsKids of the Year by Sports Illustrated Kids.
As active as the boys are, the one thing they didn’t have was an accessible playground near their home.
But last fall, Miracle Recreation, a commercial playground equipment company, found out about Conner and asked him to join their ‘Not So Bored of Directors,’ an expert panel— including a gymnast, surfer and astronaut— that inspire the company’s designs.
“Who better than a child who plays on the equipment to help inform us and give us ideas, input on new innovation?” Kate Natoli, director of marketing for Miracle Recreation, told FoxNews.com. “He’s an old soul and has a lot to share. What he brings to the table is the perspective, ‘Will this be fun for me, but I also want something that my brother can do.’”
After hearing that the Long family lived an hour away from the nearest accessible playground in Nashville, Miracle offered to build one in their community. Conner got to pick out playground features and they ended up with “Roll Around the Park” a 4,600-square-foot playground accessible for all children. The playground officially opened in mid-April.
“It was pretty cool, I was excited, definitely,” Conner told FoxNews.com. “As soon as we pull up, [Cayden’s] so excited and he just loves it a lot.”
The playground’s features include the Pull Along, which allows kids to either slide under or crawl across a horizontal ladder, an Accelerator Swing that is accessible for children in wheelchairs and walkers, and ground-level play panels that provide sensory and auditory stimulation.
Conner said his favorite part of the playground is the 14-foot slide, while Cayden loves the Ten Spin, which allows him to sit supported in a bucket seat while other kids can stand and spin him around.
“To do something that requires some movement, not just sitting in front of the TV and video games, that fosters that imagination and challenging play we all know kids need— it seems like Conner knows kids need that and wants that for his brother,” Natoli said
The community also got involved, with over 100 people signing up for community build days.
Conner picked lime green as the playground’s main color – the same color worn by the middle Tennessee chapter of myTEAM Triumph. MyTEAM Triumph is a ride-along program that pairs people with disabilities with able-bodied athletes to compete in endurance events and road races.
Long expects her sons will participate in several races this year, including races with myTEAM Triumph and the Nashville Kids Triathlon.
When Cayden and Conner first started racing, the boys were about the same size. Now that they’re both sprouting in height – and Cayden actually weighs more than Conner – making racing even more challenging.
“I tried and pushed Cayden around the house and I’m thinking ‘Wow, it’s like triple the power it takes to push him compared to just [Conner] running along by himself,’” Long said. “I have much more respect and understanding about how much more power it takes.”
The family is able to provide the boys with what they need for their races, but use CrowdRise to fundraise for their myTEAM Triumph chapter. And costs can be high: It costs $1,000 for the jogger chair Cayden rides in during races.
During summer break— in between racing, of course— the family plans to spend as much time as they can at the playground.
“We’re just so proud, it just makes my heart overwhelmed with joy to know that there’s a place kids can go to [no] matter what, and just be themselves and have fun, whatever their fun may be. Some kids’ fun may be rolling up a ramp… but knowing they have that option is fulfilling,” Long said. “I’m just tickled pink with it.”