Bill Grommesh is always on the lookout for new sled hockey players. But the fact Grommesh was able to see Alex Gullingsrud as he played wheelchair baseball last summer was as much chance as it was miraculous.
“It was just very clear that he had the drive and the commitment and the strength to make a very bad situation into a good situation,” said Grommesh, executive director of Hope, a nonprofit in Fargo, North Dakota-Moorhead, Minnesota, focused on adaptive sport. “From the first time seeing him in sled hockey, you just knew that he needed that and that he was going to be successful with it and that he was going to be very impactful.”
His impact on sled hockey and those around him continues to be great as Alex, who turned 10 in February, won USA Hockey’s Disabled Athlete of the Year Award. Alex will be honored at the President’s Award Dinner in Denver on June 9.
To understand why Alex was playing wheelchair baseball in Grand Forks, North Dakota, an hour west of his home in Red Lake Falls, Minnesota, is more complicated, especially for someone who a year before thought everything in his life was fairly normal.
During the summer of 2021, an 8-year-old Alex was playing baseball — he also played football and basketball — and on a team up a couple age levels. But for some of the summer, Alex complained about his right leg hurting.
At first, Alex’s parents, Nikki and Mike, took him a handful of times to a local chiropractor, who knew whatever was causing this pain was serious but out of his scope. The next set of doctors they saw — two hours away at Sanford Medical Center in Fargo — were quick to diagnose what was causing the pain: Alex had a cancerous tumor bigger than a softball in his right hip bone.
Those results were shared with the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Doctors at Sanford said it would be a couple days for Mayo specialists to be in contact. But it was only the next morning when they called the Gullingsruds. Alex’s story had been brought to the table for Mayo doctors to discuss and they knew it needed immediate attention. Later that day after a six-hour trip, they were at the Mayo Clinic where the Gullingsruds got the news they had dreaded.
“It was osteosarcoma in his hip and it had metastasized to his lung,” Nikki Gullingsrud said. “The oncologist there — we’ve been blessed with the best of everything we’ve had — and she just said his prognosis was not hopeless but they would do what they could.”
Chemotherapy treatments hoped to shrink the size of the tumors so they would be easier to remove. It didn’t work. In fact, the tumors had grown, so doctors said it was best to proceed with surgery and needed to do it soon. Not just any surgery, a hemipelvectomy in which Alex’s right leg was amputated. It took 12 hours at the Mayo Clinic. About five days later, he began the difficult task of relearning how to walk.
“He kind of never really questioned anything other than, ‘Why did God choose me to have this tumor?’ Nothing,” Gullingsrud said. “Never the pity party me, it was just, ‘OK, I have to get up and walk.’”
Alex continued to have chemotherapy and celebrated turning 9 in February 2022. But then came more horrific news. Scans revealed more tumors in his right lung. Another surgery was needed.
“They removed the original one and then they picked out with their hands all the ones that they could in that lung,” Gullingsrud said. “They came out and said, ‘You know, he’s lit up like a Christmas tree’ in his lung with the contrast that they put in his lungs and it’s just going to be a matter of time and it’ll just overtake him.”
There was another lung surgery. As Alex returned to school the following week, his parents had a conversation with the oncologist. There was no improvement. The oncologist said Alex only had “a few months” left to live.
It took a toll on everyone.
“We were walking through [life], we felt like we were in a fog,” Gullingsrud said. “It just felt like we were living in a nightmare. We couldn’t wake up.”
Then came more unexpected news. Only this time, it was the best possible kind. And it came right after that 45-minute conversation with the oncologist.
The Gullingsruds got a call from the lung surgeon that had operated on Alex who told them everything they pulled out from his lungs besides the main tumor was an infection.
“They said his story is the closest thing they’ve ever seen to a miracle in medicine,” Gullingsrud said.
After watching the second oldest of her four children go through the unimaginable, Gullingsrud said that was the first moment of relief she had felt in months.
Chemotherapy continued into June. Then it stopped. On July 1, 2022, Alex rang the bell at the Sanford Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo, signifying that he was cancer-free.
Being the active kid that he is, he needed an athletic outlet for his energy. After all, his parents are basketball coaches and all his siblings — Ben, 14, Gracie, 7, and Corin, 3 — are all active. Ben wears No. 12 in Alex’s honor whatever sport he plays; he was 12 when Alex had the 12-hour amputation surgery.
Other than living in Minnesota, America’s hockey hotbed, hockey was not a sport the family was involved with, much less sled hockey. They were a basketball family. But Alex was introduced to sled hockey and immediately fell in love, despite a few obstacles.
“I like that it’s something that I can do,” Alex said. “In baseball, it’s a little hard to hop the bases. In basketball, it’s sort of hard to run down the court. [Sled hockey] it’s like easy to do.”
He hasn’t been involved with the sport for a year yet, but he already lived out a dream. The NHL’s Minnesota Wild invited him to carry the team flag to center ice and pump up the crowd during the pregame festivities.
“He loved that,” Gullingsrud said. “He thought it was awesome. And then when we actually got down there for the real thing, it was like his eyes were about bugging out of his head.”
Now, because of the fight, the emotional strength and ever-present energy — even in crisis, he was helping younger kids with their reading and writing — Alex is being honored by USA Hockey.
“I don’t think we even all understand the honor and the hugeness of this USA Hockey Disabled Athlete of the Year Award,” Gullingsrud said. “But we looked over and his 7-year-old sister was just sobbing, and I was like, ‘Oh, are you tired?’ And she goes, ‘No, I’m just so proud of Alex.’”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.