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Ryan's legs: Osage mailman pushes for funds to bring wheelchair-bound youth on half marathon

Brad Gentz and Ryan Hemann

Brad Gentz of Osage, left, has started a fundraising campaign to purchase a custom race chair for Ryan Hemann, right, 15, also of Osage, who has spina bifida. 

OSAGE | Brad Gentz of Osage loves to run, and he wants to help a local teen in a wheelchair run with him.

Ryan Hemann, 15, was diagnosed with spina bifida — an incomplete closing of the spinal column — before he was born. He has no sensation or movement from the mid-chest down.

Gentz is raising money to purchase a special racing chair so he can push Ryan as he participates in the Dam 2 Dam half marathon in Des Moines next year.

“I just want to be Ryan’s legs,” said Gentz, 49, who owns Rookie’s Custom Apparel in Osage.

Gentz, who is also a mail carrier in Osage, became friends with Ryan while delivering the mail.

The home of Ryan’s parents, Jerry and Tami Hemann, is on Gentz’s route. Ryan would sometimes be waiting for the mail when Gentz arrived.

“I just decided one day that I wanted to take him for a run,” Gentz said.

He did some research and found a race chair from Adaptive Star, a company in Washington state.

The chair will need to be built specifically to fit Ryan, so the cost is significant — $7,500.

With permission from Ryan’s parents, Gentz started a fundraising campaign called Running with Ryan.

Tami said she was “dumbfounded” when Gentz told her what he wanted to do for her son.

“I never expected anything like that,” she said, noting it was “very overwhelming.”

More than $2,100 has been raised so far. The Facebook page for Running with Ryan has more than 500 likes.

Any funds left over after the chair is purchased will go to the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital. Ryan and his family were there so often when he was younger that “we used to call it our vacation home,” Tami said.

As a warm-up for Dam 2 Dam, Gentz and Ryan plan to participate in Kickoff to Kinnick, an annual 5K run in Iowa City, on Sept. 3.

Ryan will be in a makeshift race chair provided by JVA Mobility, the Waterloo-Cedar Rapids company where the family got Ryan’s regular wheelchair.

The chair from JVA Mobility will not work for an event like a half marathon, but it should be all right for a 5K event, according to Gentz.

“We will make it work,” he said.

The chair still needs to be adapted before they can try it out.

Ryan, who loves the Iowa Hawkeyes, is excited about Kickoff to Kinnick, which begins at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and ends on the 50-yard line at Kinnick Stadium. He said he’s never been inside the stadium, where the University of Iowa football team plays home games.

Ryan said even though he hasn’t participated in this year’s race yet, “I want to do it next year.”

Andie Olson, a teacher and volleyball coach at Osage High School, where Ryan will be a freshman in the fall, is organizing a special fundraiser during the Osage-North Butler volleyball match on Sept. 10.

Both teams will be selling special, commemorative versions of the Running for Ryan campaign T-shirt.

Gentz has always enjoyed running, but only started doing it competitively three years ago.

He will run a marathon in the Twin Cities on Oct. 4. He hopes it will be his last one without Ryan, his new “running buddy.”

For those who are in a wheelchair, there’s “a whole world of adaptive running out there,” Gentz said.

He said he wants to bring awareness to the public of what is possible for kids like Ryan.

Gentz has a daughter, Sammy, 19, who has autism. Sammy and Ryan have both participated in Special Olympics.

Kids with special needs is “something near and dear to my heart,” Gentz said.


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