For you or anyone who may be dealing with a handicap, this story should inspire you. Glenn Cunningham was just seven years old when he nearly died in an explosion that killed his brother. He had gone to his one-room school with several siblings on a January morning. Finding the school empty and cold, Glenn’s brother Floyd started to light a fire in the small coal stove. Floyd didn’t know the stove had some hot coals from the previous night’s community meeting or that the Kerosine labeled can contained gasoline. Fire exploded out of the stove as soon as Floyd poured the fuel. Flames burned Floyd terribly and reached Glenn’s legs as he stood nearby. They ran the two miles home through the snow and were put to bed while the children went to find their mother. 

The doctor that attended Glenn and Floyd told their parents that Floyd would not live – the burns were too severe. But Glenn would probably live unless infection set in. Either way, the doctor warned the family that Glenn would never walk again. His legs were useless now. But Glenn didn’t want to be a burden on his family. So, after overhearing a neighbor tell his mother to face the fact that he would have a disability for the rest of his life, Glenn made an important decision to walk again. Fortunately, his mother believed him when he tearfully told her this. And Glenn resolved to walk again, no matter how much it hurts or how hard it was to do. He would repeat, “I’ll walk! I’ll walk,” when he lost courage. 

Glenn remembered his wonderful family. He recalled, “I can’t even imagine how horrible it must have been with all the smells and the sight of my rotting flesh. I lost all the flesh on my knees, shins, and toes on my left foot. My transverse arch was mostly gone. Yet my family kept changing the dressings and massaging my legs, though there was little muscle and sinew left to massage.”

After his legs healed, Glenn started to work on walking. His first hurdle was standing, then moving. He would stand up, holding onto a kitchen chair, pushing it slowly before him. He called that ‘walking’ and practiced until he was too tired to continue. Later he got outside and walked along the fence, holding on, so he didn’t fall. His legs were twisted, and he seemed to walk ‘crooked.’ He was just glad he was walking!   His favorite scripture was Isaiah 40:31: “But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”  

Soon he was grabbing the tail of the family mule when they went for water. He’d try to stay up with the mule as he strolled along. And he’d play with his siblings however he could. When he could go outdoors, his dad assigned him chores again. It was great for Glenn to be helpful! Glenn was walking! Now he set his sights on running. After all, he wasn’t yet ten years old, and running was part of being a kid and playing with friends. Besides, it hurt less to run than walk. Glenn said that walking felt like daggers in his feet, and running felt better. All the while, Glenn kept massaging his scarred, twisted legs and continued to try to run. He could run well if his legs were stretched out by rubbing first. His legs didn’t seem so convoluted; only infrequently would they give out from under him.

Glenn’s family moved a lot as they tried to make a living as farmers. After moving to another small town, he found himself a mile from the school. Most kids that lived that far brought lunch, but Glenn ran home to eat. That was good for his legs.

One day he saw a race advertised in the downtown store window. He quietly entered the race and won. He said, “I showed up at the track meet in my work clothes and thick-soled canvas sneakers. I was a fourth grader, and most others were high school athletes. All of them wore running shorts and spiked running shoes. I must have looked like David lined up against all the giants, but I won going away!” Glenn was officially a runner!

Glenn cemented in his mind that he wanted to become a doctor like his grandfather and that he wanted to run in the Olympics. Unfortunately, he had trouble with his schoolwork and getting credit for fourth grade and missed all fifth grade in Colorado. His hopes of going to college to become a doctor were a longshot. But so had been walking, and now he was running! He kept his hopes alive, and when they moved back to Elkhart, Indiana, he got back into his studies even while working. 

Amazingly, with no toes on his left foot and scarred legs, Glenn also played on his high school football team! He enjoyed all sports, knowing that with some massage and stretching, he could now do what most other kids did—run and play! His rehabilitation amazes us today, but Glenn didn’t make a big deal about it. Most people didn’t even realize he had conquered so much to be there.

Glenn made it to college, refusing to accept a scholarship to attend. Instead, he worked his way through. Glenn didn’t want to owe anyone anything. So, he ran on the track team, gaining the coach’s attention. Glenn ran so fast that they thought he’d be able to break the 4-minute mark. His best time was 4:04, set in 1938. Remember that Roger Bannister finally broke the 4-minute mile in 1954.

Glenn ran in the 1932 Los Angeles and 1936 Berlin Olympics, as he had dreamed of as a boy. He won Silver in the 1500-meter race in Berlin. He retired from running in 1940 after the war canceled the Olympics. However, many still consider him America’s most outstanding miler. 

Eventually, he became a doctor, married, and raised a family of ten children. He and his wife created a home for wayward boys that helped thousands with dashed dreams reach them. For years he was a motivational speaker. When people asked him about his burns, he said, “My mother and father always brought us up never to complain. I was asked to do a lot of speeches through the years, and I often talked about overcoming challenges, but I always figured I needed to do my best and never quit. Complaining about something I had no control over would have diminished what I was trying to do. I just wanted to let my running speak for itself.”

Glenn shows us that we can do anything if determined to back our dreams with hard work. And rely on the Lord to help us. So, hang in there and keep working hard to beat your challenges.  

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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