Ben Brandt has always loved sports and everything it encompasses — the competition, the goal setting, the camaraderie — so getting cut from his hometown basketball team was a serious gut punch.
He didn’t realize it at the time, but the experience would open a door to a new opportunity.
Brandt was a high school student in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, when he was told he wouldn’t make the team. The news sent him to a dark place.
His biggest cheerleader — his mom — was in his corner, rooting him on.
“She wanted to get me back into the things I loved. She’s always told me that those two months where I didn’t have sports was when I looked the saddest, and she just wanted to make me happier. She knows I love to compete, and our parents love to watch us compete and cheer us on,” Brandt, who has cerebral palsy, said. “My mom thought there had to be something out there for people with disabilities like me, and there was a local organization in northern Illinois that got me involved in track and field.”
Brandt connected with the new coaches and a new phase of competition.
“I’d tried track and field in middle school, and I liked it, but it interfered with baseball, so I gave it up,” he said.
Brandt quickly made gains in his shot put and discus throws and his times running the track. He found new successes in local and regional competitions. Those successes started to catch the attention of national Paralympics coaches and organizers.
Success on the field matched success in the classroom. Both he and his twin brother, with deep familial ties to many Big Ten schools, decided to attend the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Brandt graduated in December 2023 with a bachelor’s degree and is now pursuing a Master of Professional Accountancy. His brother will graduate with a bachelor’s in construction management in May. They plan to walk together across the stage, something the COVID pandemic prevented in 2020.
As a freshman in college, Brandt wanted to continue to compete, even though he was hundreds of miles away from his coaches in Illinois. Again, with an assist from his mom, Brandt connected with coaches in Minnesota, Florida and here in Lincoln. They put together weight and training programs, which he adheres to each day at Campus Recreation. The efforts catapulted him into international competition.
Twice, Brandt has competed in the World Abilitysport Games, in Portugal in 2022 and in Thailand in 2023, as a member of the Move United USA delegation. At the Thailand games in December, he medaled in three events — silvers in javelin and the 200-meter race, and a bronze in the shot put.
Brandt said he keeps a tight schedule to fit in 18 hours of training a week, on top of school work and his job as a student manager at Campus Recreation, where he works between 15 and 20 hours a week. But, for him, the opportunities to keep training and competing far outweigh the days that he’s tired from starting his day at 5:45 a.m.
“I like competing and being on a team,” he said. “Being able to continue it has been a good outlet for me, and building those friendships while being able to compete with the best in the world has been amazing.
“My mental health is definitely better. And physically, I feel better. And the best is when I get to cheer on my teammates.”
Brandt also finds time for yoga classes on campus, a habit he picked up while at a summer developmental camp at the Chula Vista Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in California.
“They taught us yoga, and I find it really beneficial,” he said. “I’ll lift and then grab a yoga mat just to relax the mind.”
As far as grounding himself and controlling his nerves when he’s preparing to compete, Brandt relies on techniques he’s learned along the way.
“The coaches in Chula Vista really taught us how to stretch and prepare,” he said. “When I’m waiting for my turn in an event, I’ll turn up a beat, listen to it, and think about some of my favorite, relaxing places, like my favorite beaches that my family and I have visited.”
Brandt has long-term plans for success as well. After earning his master’s, he plans to become a certified public accountant before joining his brother in taking over leadership of their family’s construction business. He also sees more opportunities in the world of sports. For now, he has his sights on competition in Paris, France.
“I’m training now for trials this summer for Paris,” he said. “I know the average age for shot put and discus athletes in the Paralympics and Olympics are in their 30s, so I feel like I haven’t hit my prime yet. I told myself, and my parents agreed, that as long as I’m seeing improvement, I’m going to keep training and competing.
“I love setting goals and being able to see that all the work I put in is working towards something.”