When Bradly Rainwater’s family members learned he was born blind, they decided to not put any limits on him.
As it turned out, Bradly had the same mindset.
The Davison sophomore is a pole vaulter on the track & field team. It’s an event that he took up not just because his father and uncle were former all-state pole vaulters, but because it was one of the most difficult events in any sport.
“I have always gone after the hardest things,” Rainwater said. “I thought this would be another thing that I would see if I could do it.”
Rainwater, who also is a member of the marching band and wrestling teams at Davison, recently finished his first full season competing as a vaulter and has proven that he can do it, with a personal best of 8 feet, 6 inches. But he’s not satisfied with simply clearing a height in competition – he wants to go higher.
“In the end, I’d like to go to state and get a reasonable placing,” Rainwater said of his career goals. “That would be good for me. I’d enjoy that. For someone in a situation like mine, or a situation similar, you have to work twice as hard to get things where you want them to be. But I am dedicated to it.”
Davison pole vaulting coach Brad Rainwater, Bradly’s grandfather, is also dedicated to it, and is doing all he can to help his grandson reach his goals. Brad Rainwater has been coaching for four decades, but had to teach himself some new tricks when Bradly came along.
“It’s a learning process for us, as well,” Brad Rainwater said. “We started by putting our heads together, my sons and I, and I took it basically like I would coach anyone, but we had to be more hands-on. Basically, it’s step-by-step. It’s the same way when he wrestles; they have to literally do every movement like step, step, step, step. Everything on the vault is done by steps, so we start him with doing three steps, then four steps, then five steps. We’re thinking of ways to teach him to turn, so we use a lot of rings and high bar so he can get that feel.
“What it’s done for me is made me a better coach, because I have to break everything down. Now I’m a little more technical with them all.”
Recently, Bradly began using a track on the runway to help guide his pole to the box, which allows him to start his run farther back. He’s made steady improvement throughout the season, setting his personal best May 13 during a dual meet against Flint Carman-Ainsworth and matching it two days later at the Heritage Hawks Last Chance Invitational.
During practices with a bungee cord, he has cleared more than 10 feet. He’s also started imparting wisdom on other vaulters.
“If I have young vaulters, he teaches them the first three steps and a plant,” Brad Rainwater said. “If people are around (Bradly) and they didn’t know he was blind, because he’s actually doing the drills or showing kids how to do drills, they go, ‘He’s blind?’”
Bradly said the reaction from teammates and opponents alike has been great.
“They work with me some, like they’ll say, ‘You didn’t turn correctly,’ or ‘You didn’t do this correctly,’ which I appreciate, because criticism like that I can’t necessarily see on film,” he said. “Opponents, some of them come up to me and say thank you to me, and that I inspired them. It’s still hard for me to grasp, because I’m not as good as I should be, but I appreciate people saying that.”
While there’s no official number of blind individuals who have competed in the pole vault, it is rare.
“I know that he’s only one of maybe three others in the state (history), and the other three had some sight,” Brad Rainwater said. “We try not to limit him; we try not to put him in a box that he can or can’t do that. As far as I know, he’s one of the very few in the country that’s doing this. We love it, because we hope it opens doors for other kids that have desire to do other things.”
Bradly, however, said he hasn’t quite grappled with the fact that what he’s doing is special, as he feels he still needs to get better. That’s his focus now, and it’s reflective of someone who has played sports his entire life, from T-ball to soccer to basketball, and now wrestling and track.
He’s not a blind pole vaulter; he’s simply a pole vaulter. And when he’s done, he wants to be known as a great one.
“I’ve always had the attitude of why not,” he said. “Why not work extra hard to be as good as they are?”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Davison pole vaulter Bradly Rainwater lines up for an attempt this spring. (Middle) Rainwater works with his grandfather Brad Rainwater, the school’s longtime pole vaulting coach. (Photos and video provided by the Rainwater family.)
Bradley Richards believes that life is all about trying new things, setting bigger goals and pushing yourself to new heights – in his case, literally.
Richards, now a 6-foot-5, 190-pound junior basketball standout at tiny Fruitport Calvary Christian, played on the school’s fifth-grade team when he was in second grade.
He remembers staring longingly at the rim in those days and dreaming about dunking, before making that dream a reality by throwing one down in February of his seventh-grade year.
While his three older sisters - Taylor, Allyson and Kelsey - were leading the Calvary girls basketball program to new heights, he vowed he would do the same with the boys program someday.
Bradley and his teammates accomplished that goal last spring, winning the school’s first boys District basketball title despite a roster with no seniors.
This season, Calvary came flying out of the gate with a 5-0 start and is now 5-2 heading into Friday’s home game against Saugatuck.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Bradley, who averages 29 points and 14 rebounds per game. “Our school is so small that we’re more like a family. It’s not about me. I’m just so happy for our school and all of the guys on the team.”
The next goal is to repeat as District champions and try to win a Regional title, before setting his sights at clearing 7 feet in the high jump this spring.
“I’m going to try to get past that this year,” said Bradley in his typical humble, matter-of-fact fashion.
One thing his father and fourth-year Fruitport Calvary Christian boys basketball coach Brad Richards has learned is to not put anything past his only son, the youngest of his four children.
Bradley displayed an interest in music as a young boy and now sings in the school’s worship group and plays the saxophone, piano and guitar. Last fall, he played high school football for the first time as part of a cooperative agreement with Muskegon Catholic Central and wound up starting at wide receiver and defensive back for the state powerhouse program.
“He’s blessed and he’s gifted – yes,” said his father, who also coached all three of his girls during their Calvary Christian basketball careers. “But he works so hard.
“Bradley sets goals and works toward them. He’s always looking for the next thing to do.”
True to his school
One thing he doesn’t like to do is media interviews. Specifically, he doesn’t like calling attention to himself.
“He is pretty quiet and would rather have his teammates get the attention,” said his mother, Joy.
Fruitport Calvary Christian is one of the smallest schools on the entire Lakeshore with 51 students in grades 9-12, and just 17 boys in the high school.
The Eagles take great pride in their ability to compete against much larger schools. They made a huge statement during the first full week of December with three convincing victories over bigger schools.
That week started on Tuesday, Dec. 5, with Calvary’s first-ever boys basketball win over neighbor Fruitport, a Division 2 school that competes in the Ottawa-Kent Conference Blue. Bradley scored 35 points with 14 rebounds in that game, with clutch free throws by role player Eric Dubois Quayle sealing the win.
Two days later, Richards scored 36 points with 17 rebounds in a win over Grand Rapids Sacred Heart.
Calvary then capped the 3-0 week Friday with a victory over Kent City, another Division 2 school, as Bradley scored 36 points with 18 rebounds.
Calvary is led by the “big three” of juniors Richards and Quinn Swanson and senior Sam Zelenka. Swanson, the team’s second-leading scorer with 17 points plus six rebounds and three assists per game, injured his knee last week against Schoolcraft and his health will have a huge bearing on the team’s success going forward. Zelenka is the top defender and averages 11 points, eight assists and seven rebounds.
The other starters are junior workhorse Zach McFarren, who owns the school’s shot put and discus records and has played all but six minutes over the team’s seven games, and senior Nolan Ghezzi.
Richards, already a two-time Associated Press all-state selection who even made the Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan all-state team as an eighth grader, has seen every gimmick defense to try and shut him down, including box-and-twos and triple teams. He credits his experience in football and track with helping him deal with it.
“There is usually a quick guy in front of me and a big guy behind me,” said Bradley, who scored a career-high 47 points in a game last season. “Football has really helped me, because I’m not as scared of the contact. The high jumping has helped me to elevate and get my shot off.”
Jim McHugh is a high jump legend from Pentwater who went on to become a two-time national champion in the event at Hillsdale College, and he now coaches West Michigan athletes in the event.
The first time he worked with Bradley Richards, in April of last year, he knew he had something special on his hands.
“Bradley went up and literally hurdled the bar at 5-11,” said McHugh. “I was in shock. I said to myself: ‘This is gonna be a heck of a ride.’ The kid is a generational talent.”
The coaching of McHugh paid immediate dividends, as Bradley improved from a top jump of 6-1½ as a freshman to 6-6½ in last year’s Regional meet. Then came the Division 4 Finals at Hudsonville a few weeks later.
Bradley won the first track Finals championship for Fruitport Calvary with a leap of 6-10 – which was 3 inches higher than anyone else in any of the four Lower Peninsula divisions and entire Upper Peninsula that day – and caught the attention of college scouts from across the country.
The following week, he competed at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals in Philadelphia and placed second with a jump of 6-8.24.
McHugh shudders to think of how high his prodigy can soar. He has his sights set on the Division 4 Finals record of 6-10½ (Kurt Schneider, Auburn Hills Oakland Christian, 2009), the Muskegon-area record of 7-0 (Steve Paulsen, Fremont, 1998) and the all-division/class Finals record of 7-1 (John Payment, Brimley, 1989).
“God has given him incredible talent, but he also has the desire it takes,” said McHugh, who is also working with another Division I college high jump prospect in Hart junior Addison Hovey. “I gave him a workout plan, and he has done every bit of it. He has cleaned up his diet, done the cold showers and the cold bathtubs, everything. I’m excited to see the results.”
Richards, whose first love was basketball, admits he is smitten with the high jump and seeing how high he can soar.
Now, when asked about his favorite athletes, he still mentions Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant, but he also includes Olympic gold medalist high jumper Mutaz Barshim of Qatar – who made news by not taking additional jumps at the 2020 Olympics in Japan, thereby sharing the gold medal with Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy.
“I just respect that so much, sharing the gold medal,” Bradley said.
Now the Bradley Richards recruiting saga has begun and, for him, it’s not just about choosing what school – it’s also about choosing what sport.
“I would like to do both, play basketball and high jump in college, if possible,” Bradley said.
That would certainly be a possibility if Bradley follows in his family’s footsteps at Cornerstone University. His father was a basketball standout at Cornerstone, which is where he met Joy, and all three of his sisters played for the Golden Eagles. (Kelsey is currently a student assistant for this year’s team.)
Playing both may not be possible if he pursues high jump at the Division I level, where Michigan and Illinois are among schools actively recruiting him.
“I know at some point I’m going to have to make a decision, but I don’t have to right now,” said the 17-year-old Bradley. “So it doesn’t do me any good to sit and stress about it all the time.”
Instead, he is focused on more immediate goals.
The first is figuring out a way for his basketball team to snap a two-game losing skid and get positioned for another postseason run.
Then it will be trying to clear the magical high jump number of 7-0, and beyond. And don’t forget football, where he would love to start off his senior year by helping Muskegon Catholic improve on its 6-5 record from a year ago and make a run at the school’s 13th state football championship.
Only after all of that will it be college decision time.
“It’s not an easy choice, and it will take a lot of prayer and discernment,” admitted Richards, who will look for help from his immediate family and his school family in making his choice. “I’ll figure it out. I usually do.”
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Fruitport Calvary Christian’s Bradley Richards stands atop the podium after winning the high jump last spring at the Lower Peninsula Division 4 Finals. (Middle) Richards lines up to shoot a free throw. (Below) Playing as part of a cooperative with Muskegon Catholic Central, Richards works to get away from a Traverse City St. Francis tackler. (Track photo courtesy of Joy Richards; basketball and football photos courtesy of Local Sports Journal.)