University City

Hike brings out the best in Countryside third-grader

Countryside Montessori prides itself on developing leaders and promoting positive attitudes and fair play.

One student, 8-year-old Conrad French, raised the bar of courage and leadership this summer with his discipline and determination.

Each year, the school takes a group of campers to Gatlinburg, Tenn., for its Camp Free Spirit. There, campers learn about the core values of Countryside, such as respect, honesty, caring, environmental awareness and sportsmanship.

The trip features whitewater rafting and storytelling and is capped off by a challenging hike to a waterfall.

"It is a good 4 miles in and 4 miles back," said Mustang athletic director Nick Nichols. "The first 2 miles are pretty flat, but the next mile is a steep incline. If that third mile is steep, the last mile is straight up. You are literally hanging onto trees to pull yourself up. It is grueling and demanding."

Nichols said it is so demanding, if it has recently rained, they do not even attempt the hike.

Conrad, a rising third-grader, was attending his fourth Countryside camp this summer. He has a rare birth defect, skeletal dysplasia, a bone condition in which bones and some connective tissues abnormally develop.

His father, Michael French, said they have seen doctors from Tokyo to Berlin. There is no known cure.

Because of the disorder, Conrad's left arm won't fully extend, and his foot sticks out to one side, but otherwise he is an active third-grader. He plays on an in-house basketball team at Countryside, skateboards, rides his bike, is a scout archery member and does not use his condition as an excuse for anything.

"Everything for Conrad is a challenge," said Michael French. "The thing with my son is that he has more determination in his pinkie finger than the average NFL player has in their whole body. He gives 1,000 percent effort in everything that he does."

That determination and courage were on display as he and the group of around 25 Countryside students started on their hike.

Nichols said he knew Conrad could make the first couple of miles, but he became concerned when the trail started getting narrower and the hike more intense.

"Honestly, I wasn't sure about Conrad making it, and I tried to talk him out of it," Nichols said. "I knew he was tired and worn out, but he emphatically told me that he was going to do it."

Nichols said typically only about 30 percent of his campers will complete the hike. Two camp counselors go up the mountain, and two, Nichols and his wife, return to the bus with campers who can't make the hike.

Conrad knew and understood the reality of committing, but was determined to make it.

To traverse the eight miles, the hike lasted nine hours in all. Nichols waited at the bus for the second half of the hike. When the group returned, Conrad was at the front. He had completed the hike and led the group back down the mountain.

"Man, was I proud of him," Nichols said. "There is nothing that young man cannot do, and it was just a great moment to see him come around that bend with a big smile on his face."

"He said, 'I told you I could do it, Mr. Nichols.' I am so grateful that he is at our school, and Conrad is an inspiration to anyone he is around."

One of the adult counselors was so touched by Conrad's courage that he presented him with a counselor bead for his camp necklace, a high honor for a Countryside camper.

"It was something that I wanted to do," Conrad said. "It was the longest hike I have ever been on."

Conrad went to the Grand Canyon this summer and hiked with his family. "Yeah, but it was only three miles," Conrad said.

His hike has touched everyone who was a part of it.

"He is an inspiration to me," Nichols said. "More than his physical defect, it is his heart and determination that are unbelievable. His smile lights up the room, and his leadership skills set him apart."

After the hike, Conrad's feet were tired and sore. During one bus stop on the way home, Nichols piggybacked him around.

"I am a firm believer that there is nothing that Conrad can't do," Nichols said. "If there is something, I would have to see it to believe it. He is an amazing inspiration."