Spencer Brandt didn’t have an average childhood. In fact, he was nearly robbed of it entirely.
It was 10 years ago that the Greenville High School graduate first felt pain when playing with other children in the Greenville recreational soccer league.
He would sprint, pass and shoot the ball like so many of the other 11-year-olds playing with him, until the ball or another child’s foot would occasionally strike his right knee.
It was then that Brandt, now 21, would suddenly fall to the ground and clutch his leg in agony.
“I was an active kid, I used to play soccer a lot,” Brandt said. “During the summer between fifth and sixth grades, I noticed a bump on my right knee. It was weird because if it got hit the pain was paralyzing. I would collapse.”
The devastating news of the seriousness of his pain came on Sept. 9, 2003, when doctors at the Greenville Family Care Center diagnosed the bump on Brandt’s leg as osteosarcoma, the most common form of bone cancer and the sixth most common type of cancer in children, most often found in teenage boys.
From there, Brandt’s world forever changed.
He was placed into an aggressive form of chemotherapy at DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, a 45-week course.
On Dec. 23, 2003, Brandt underwent surgery to remove the cancerous tumor from his right leg. Doctors performed a total knee replacement and removed seven inches of his shin bone, which left a 14-inch scar from his ankle to knee.
Brandt began his recovery and was even able to walk again after physical therapy, but after numerous infections lead to fevers with temperatures as high as 103 degrees and an emergency surgery, Brandt said he had enough. He made the decision to speak with doctors about amputating his leg, at just 13 years old.
On Dec. 28, 2005, doctors operated to amputate his leg, using 37 surgical staples to close his stump on the lower thigh.
The amputation was a success, as Spencer is now cancer free.
A NEW PASSION
On March 17, 2006, Brandt received his first prosthetic leg and began yet another recovery process, eventually learning to walk again with the use of the artificial leg.
“Going into ninth grade it was a bit strange,” he said. “I had only had my prosthetic for a few months.”
Brandt was routinely fitted with new prosthetic legs as he continued to grow, resulting in months-long periods in the summer where he was without a prosthetic leg.
Eventually, he turned to other devices for recreation.
“During the summertime I would get bored,” he said. “I started off with the old hospital-style wheelchairs. I started doing speed runs, pushing with my arms to get around. Over the next few years I began a wheelchair sports clinic at Mary Free Bed in Grand Rapids.”
Brandt began playing wheelchair basketball in his senior year of high school, staying at camps overnight and eventually working as a volunteer.
“I’d watch kids, participate myself, and then I eventually just started doing my own thing,” he said.
It was shortly after he began playing basketball when he was introduced to hand-cycling.
“I started messing around with that, it was another big shoulder workout, just like basketball,” he said. “When I started doing that, I realized I could finally go fast.”
Brandt attended an event at Mary Free Bed called Bikes for the Rest of Us, which allowed him the ability to trade in his bike, a starter bike that couldn’t reach high speeds, to the bike he has now.
“It has a fork-hand bar, I can really fly with it now,” he said.
The bike is aging and has thousands of miles put into it by Brandt, but that effort has spawned into a passion that is about to lead to greater things.
COAST TO COAST
Ten years from those painful moments playing soccer as a child and Brandt has now put his mindset on a lofty goal some may think impossible.
He has made a decision to put his passion of cycling to greater use by biking from the coast of the Atlantic Ocean to the coast of the Pacific Ocean.
“My idea is to go from Maine to California,” he said. “I want the back tires beginning off the coast of Maine and the front tires finishing on the coast of California.”
Brandt said he’s been pondering the idea for awhile now and recently decided to put the wheels in motion to actually begin his trip. He hopes to depart in the beginning of May 2014, finishing up some time in October 2014.
“I’ve been thinking of this idea for the past couple of years now,” he said. “In May I threw around the idea with my friends and everyone is just so supportive of it. They loved it.”
Brandt said he is not currently aware of anyone who has traveled across the country using a handcycle.
The handcycle itself is a human-powered device which Brandt will power with the use of his arms as his legs remain stationary. His current bike is a 27-speed bike with two hand brakes and an emergency brake under the seat. There is one front tire and two rear tires, in the fashion of a tricycle.
Brandt said he chose a fork-steer handcycle because he’s used to using both arms at the same time to generate motion.
“I just got thinking about my life-long journey,” he said. “When I was going through chemotherapy, really, throughout my life, there’s been so many people there to help, willing to give the shirt off their back … I’ve never really had a chance to repay them.”
Brandt is hoping his story can inspire others going through difficult situations to stay strong.
“There’s a reason that I am as strong as I am today, it’s thanks to those individuals,” he said. “There’s no way truthfully I can ever repay the people who helped me along the way or the people I’ve lost along the way for the happiness and joy they brought to my life … but maybe I can pay it forward. Maybe my strength in doing this will inspire people.”
SEEKING OUT OTHERS
Brandt has not yet set a route for his adventure. An approximate distance from Maine to California is about 3,000 miles, however, Brandt believes he will at least double that distance as he plans to “zig-zag” throughout the country, seeking out inspiring individuals to interview for a video documentary of his trip.
“We’re estimating 7,000 to 8,000 miles overall,” he said. “Four to five months of biking seven days a week. No matter how good of shape I get in, it’s still going to be exhausting.”
Brandt insists his journey will not be about the distance, but about those who he encounters on his trip.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the people I plan to meet along the way,” he said. “No matter what, I’m doing this, I can’t ever stop. I want to go across the entire country and interview people to find out what made them strong. I want to talk to anyone who’s had any kind of life-shattering event.”
Brandt’s close friend and Greenville resident Nick VanHaver plans to travel with him to help document his adventure through video.
“It is indeed crazy,” said VanHaver of the idea. “But in my opinion, if anyone can do it, it’s Spencer. He’s got that drive and determination to do anything.”
VanHaver said he’ll be along for the journey hoping to work as an information guru, updating fans throughout the trip and reaching out to those who Brandt hopes to meet and interview.
Only a week and a half into his idea, a Facebook fan page has already popped up online and Spencer has begun posting to an online video journal to update fans about his progress leading up to his trip in May.
Brandt says he plans to start a financial campaign on www.kickstarter.com and has already received his first paypal.com donation.
With money needed for camera equipment, gas and food for his friends following him on his journey, Brandt is hoping for donations to help him along his way.
VanHaver said he can’t wait to see what happens when Brandt begins his journey.
“I think trying to reach out to others is a fantastic idea,” he said. “When he came up with the idea to zig-zag throughout the country and turn this into a two-hour documentary, I think it is the best idea that any of us could have come up with for this thing. I can’t wait to see what becomes of this. I think it’s got the shot to be one of the biggest untold stories of a small town guy out to change the world.”
You can become a fan of Brandt’s official Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/SpencerBrandtOfficial or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.