A team and a dream: Mahtowa father and son make a dream come true in the Beargrease
With his father acting as his legs, Mahtowa's Billy Koecher made Beargrease history Sunday when he raced eight miles down and back to the beginning of the trail. Adam stood on the runners behind the sled, while Billy sat in front, issuing command...
With his father acting as his legs, Mahtowa's Billy Koecher made Beargrease history Sunday when he raced eight miles down and back to the beginning of the trail. Adam stood on the runners behind the sled, while Billy sat in front, issuing commands to the dogs: gee (turn to the right), haw (turn to the left) and whoa (stop).
"It was a good race," Billy said. "It didn't take long, but the snow was good."
Born 3 months early with cerebral palsy, doctors told Adam and Jenny Koecher their son would likely never walk, and possibly never be able to sit up on his own.
They were wrong. They didn't know Adam and Jenny, and they certainly didn't know Billy, now 22.
Not only can he walk, but Billy has his own team of sled dogs -- a high school graduation present from mom and dad -- which he cares for and trains with lots of help from family and friends.
"I requested two years ago that Billy be allowed to do the race with Adam because he doesn't have the strength in his legs because of cerebral palsy," Jenny explained. "The board voted unanimously to make the exception for the first time."
The approval came with conditions, however. Billy and Adam could only run the first portion of the 373-mile marathon race, which runs from Duluth up the North Shore to the Gunflint Trail and back, because the terrain farther up the trail was too dangerous. That was fine with them, Jenny said, it wasn't about competing.
"It was amazing -- the whole experience" said Billy, a 2010 Willow River graduate. "I made so many mushing friends through this. They were all so supportive of me. I really appreciate it."
Although he's riding high on the wave of support from the mushing community, Billy moves on quickly to acknowledge his family.
"I want to thank my dad very much, and my sisters, my mom, my brothers," he said, rattling off the names of his four siblings (James, 16; Caleb, 20; Cassy, 13; and Maddy, 9). "Because they've been so supportive of me and making my dream happen."
That's what family is about.
"When people tell Adam 'Good job,' he always tells them that he is honored to be a part of this with Billy," Jenny said.
It wasn't easy reaching this point. When doctors told her to "find the best wheelchair" for Billy when he was young, Jenny and her husband searched instead for a doctor who would see the possibilities that they saw in their oldest son.
Eventually, they found orthopedic surgeon David Gordon.
"He started out the same way [talking about cerebral palsy and what it meant], but then he said: 'This is what we're gonna do about it,'" Jenny said, noting that Gordon has a real heart for his patients. "We did horse therapy, everything. Billy certainly can walk now."
Gordon also happens to be a musher. And Billy had always had a special rapport with dogs, since he was a little boy.
"He could relate to Billy's love of dogs from the beginning," Jenny said, telling how Billy went through some pretty major surgeries around the age of 11 and was confined to a hospital bed in their living room for a time. "His brothers would bring the lab puppies in and all of a sudden, Billy wanted to hurry up and get better. Dr. Gordon said 'Those dogs are gonna do more good than harm. Let him hold the puppies,' even though he was in a hospital bed."
She credits Gordon and Billy's dog, Moby, with sparking Billy's dream of mushing. When Billy went to the humane society to find a dog after his had died, he and Moby clicked immediately.
"Moby wanted to be right next to Billy every second," she said.
Mom, however, wanted Moby to learn to sleep on the floor instead of next to Billy, so she leashed him to the bed one day. He pulled the bed across the floor.
"Billy said, 'I've got a sled dog,'" Jenny said, noting that Moby didn't look like a sled dog, but he acted like one and certainly had a lot of energy. "Then Billy's brothers and sisters decided Moby needed a job. He would pull the kids across the yard in the sled."
And so the story grew. They bought the rest of the team in North Dakota after Billy graduated and the entire family has pitched in to train and care for the dogs.
On Sunday, according to Jenny and Minnesota Public Radio photographer Paul Walsh, the Koecher team got the loudest cheer from the crowd at the start of the Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, a point of pride for an already proud mama.
"We've all helped him," Jenny said. "It was the happiest day, I think, in our lives, to see this come true for Billy.
"Watching Billy and Adam take off and the happiness on Billy's face ..." her voice got tight with emotion. "It was really something. I'm pretty proud of him."
The Beargrease officials have invited Billy and Adam and their team to race again.
"I'll go back," Billy said, in a heartbeat.
Now if only he could figure out a way to take his entire family to watch the Iditarod.