Hunter Thomas: The Comeback Kid

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- Hunter Thomas packs a punch.

A black belt, this 17-year old Powell High School student remembers the day dreaming of earning karate's ultimate symbol.

"I always looked up to the black belts in karate school," Hunter said. "I always wanted to be one of them."

At the age of 15, mission accomplished.

But as powerful as his punch, it has nothing on his perseverance. Long before this karate kid kicked his way to tons of trophies, he was learning to live a life not normal.

"He became infected at age three," Beth Thomas, Hunter's mom, told Local 8 Sports.

"He was of course walking, but he started to crawl again, and when we asked him to get up and walk, he told us his legs hurt."

Trips to the doctor's office revealed that Thomas had Legg-Calve-Perthes, a hip disorder in which blood doesn't properly flow to the bones.

At age four, Thomas had his first surgery. The outlook following it was promising.

"I improved and they told me the chance of me getting the disease in my right leg wasn't very high," Thomas recalled.

But five years later, the disease did find its way to his right side. And as a 9-year old, the surgery was far more complicated and invasive.

"It (the surgery) put him a body cast, from his chest to his ankles. He was in that for almost 7 months," Beth Thomas said.

It was during this time, Hunter started to fall in love with karate. His younger brother was taking classes at The Wheeler Academy in Powell, and as Hunter puts it, "I just rolled in here in a wheelchair and watched my brother."

During the classes, instructors walked up to Hunter and talked to him, and as soon as he was out of his cast, Hunter was eager to take part.

Doctors told him that he would walk with a limp, or that he would have limitations physically, but Hunter shed those notions because "it didn't sit well" with him.

And karate served as the ultimate therapy.

"Doctors thought it might be good," Chuck Reynolds, owner of The Wheeler Academy said.

"Once he got going, it was a matter of desire. I think God gave him the ability to gut it out."

The more karate Hunter did, the better he felt and the stronger he became. He started entering tournaments in Tennessee, then regional and national ones. By the time he was 12, he was a two-time national champion.

Beth admits it wasn't always easy to sit back and just cheer.

"As a mother, I didn't want him to do anything like this," she said.

"But I think one thing that his surgeon told us is that this is the hand he was dealt. Let him do what he can do. You treat him like he's handicapped, he'll act like he's handicapped. It was hard to sit back and bite your tongue, but the more he pushed himself the stronger he would become."

So strong, that by the age of 15, Hunter kicked his way to a black belt. The wins and trophies were mounting... until an all too familiar feeling returned last summer.

"I just wasn't getting enough sleep. I kept waking up in the middle of the night. I had been blowing off the pain for a while because I was wanting to make myself stronger and better."

When Hunter did finally go to the doctor, tests revealed more complications with his right hip.

Another surgery was need.

And recovery from it was difficult.

"It was harder since I was older and I realized what was going on. When I was a kid, it was just...'whatever.' So it was a lot harder to take in. I knew what it meant. But I just knew that I made it thru the two other ones, so I just pushed thru it."

But pushing thru meant excruciating therapy. Following the surgery, Hunter was bed-ridden for two months. During that time, he strapped his leg into a machine. The machine then moved his leg up to his chest. Hunter did this six hours a day.

But just like before, Hunter was bound to comeback. He proved doctors wrong, consistently exceeding their expectations with what he could do physically.

"I think anybody can do what they want, you just have to put your head to it. You can push thru a lot of things if you have the support."

Today, if you watch Hunter instruct at The Wheeler Academy, you would never know he suffers from a degenerative hip disorder that doctors say is one of the top ten most deformed and complicated ones for his age.

There is no limp.

There are no physically limitations.

That's been replaced by a desire, a determination, and a drive not to let the hand he was dealt, keep him on the mat.

As for Thomas' medical future, he will have to have a hip replacement, but doctors are confident that won't take place until he's in his 40s or 50s.

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