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UND football captain Hunter Pinke, who severed his spine in a 2019 ski accident, will enroll to Arizona to compete in adapted track and field

Pinke served as captain for the Fighting Hawks, who went 5-2 and advanced to the FCS quarterfinals for the first time in program history.

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UND football captain Hunter Pinke and N.D. State wide receiver Cole Jacob (right) watch the coin toss at center field prior to kickoff at the Fargodome Saturday, March 20, 2021. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald
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The idea hit Hunter Pinke this fall.

He tweeted Sept. 21 "Random thought for the day .. now that I have a legitimate chance, I think I wanna compete at the Olympics. (Really hoping I quote this 4-6 years from now)."

"I was never good enough of an athlete to be at the Olympics, but maybe I have a shot at Paralympics," Pinke said of his thinking that day. "It got like (586) likes. I thought, well shoot, I might have to try to do this."

So the UND football captain, who severed his spine in a skiing accident in December 2019, has decided to enroll to the University of Arizona to compete in adapted track and field and road-racing, he announced Wednesday.

Pinke will graduate from UND this spring.

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After his accident, Pinke was rehabbing at Craig Hospital in the Denver area, where he spoke with a Paralympian, who sparked his interest.

So this fall Pinke started looking at which sport he could accel. Pinke was a North Dakota Class B all-state high school basketball player, averaging 21.0 points per game his senior year.

"I thought about that, but I've had success in basketball," he said. "I was looking for something new."

So Pinke pinpointed two sports that fit his classification of injury the best -- rowing and adaptive track and field.

He then started looking at college programs and found three schools with adaptive track and field -- Penn State, Illinois and Arizona.

After Pinke reached out to all three schools, Penn State called him the next day, but the coach there had experience in sled hockey and Pinke wasn't interested.

The next day, Arizona and coach Derek Brown called.

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"In our first conversation, I knew that's where I wanted to go," Pinke said. "They have beautiful facilities specific to adaptive sports ... not to mention the weather is okay in Tucson."

Pinke, who was accepted to Arizona's architecture school, needed to bring his own racing chair to Arizona, and they're expensive. So, he applied for some grants and was able to get enough money to buy a racing chair, which is being delivered to him this week.

Although Arizona does have adaptive athletic scholarships, Pinke will walk-on to the program.

"I'm kind of betting on my self here," he said. "I feel like I'm a quick learner and have the right mindset. I wouldn't give me money, either. I've never got into a racing wheelchair. But that's the way I want it. I want to earn it and see if I can do it."

Pinke will travel to Tucson in early August.

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Adaptive track and field has nearly every event a regular track and field program might have, including throwing events and running events with the racing wheelchair.

"I'll figure out what kind of athlete I'll be when I'm down there," Pinke said. "(Coach Brown) said a lot of times the races you'll compete in are the same ones you did as a regular track athlete. For me, that was 400 and 800. A lot of people wince when I say that but those are my type. It takes a little bit of grit and grind-your-teeth at the end."

Pinke has been working out in Grand Forks at Altru Sports Performance since August, about two or three times per week.

After UND graduation, he'll train four or five times per week in Grand Forks.

"I just have to put on some miles," Pinke said. "How do you shoot a basketball? You pick up a ball and find a basket. How do you learn how to race in a wheelchair? Get in and start rolling. That's my plan."

Pinke said he's grateful for the opportunity to do something not many have the chance to do.

"I feel fortunate to train at a top-notch program with a chance to potentially go to the Paralympics and compete for a gold medal," Pinke said. "Saying that sounds crazy right now, but I'm really grateful to be in this position. Sixteen months ago, if you said this is happening, I'd say hold up. That's too much. Easy. I'm going to try to get out of bed. To now be in this position, I'm extremely grateful.

"I'm really focused and locked in. I've been a college football player for the past four, five years, and I've had (UND football coach Bubba Schweigert) preaching day-by-day, stay focused, so it's engrained in me to keep your eyes on the daily work. I'm really locked into getting in shape and making the most of it."

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Hunter Pinke is the Grand Forks Herald's Person of The Year. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, tmiller@gfherald.com or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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