A Conversation with Rolling Thunder Coach Jon Gunnarson


Over the years in Minnesota, wheelchair athletes have become more plentiful, and especially in the last few years, the newest crop of wheelers have shattered records and become national and international champions. One of the main figures in this new generation is Rolling Thunder Coach and a parent of two standout wheelers, Jon Gunnarson. 

Gunnarson is the Southern Region Head Coach for Rolling Thunder track and field and is also the parent of Tyler Gunnarson and Peyton Gunnarson. We recently caught up with Jon to talk about his coaching journey, his background in track and field and what the future holds for him and his sons!


How did you first get involved in track and field?

I got my first taste of track and field in elementary school. We would have our track and field day and run the mile every year.  I was a pretty good miler in my younger years but got more into the middle distances and hurdles as I got older.

You have two sons, Tyler and Peyton, who were born with Spina Bifida, and are now standout track and field athletes. How did you first get them involved in track and field?

When my oldest son (Peyton) started elementary school, one of the teachers/track coaches told us that Minnesota had a wheelchair division for track & field.  We had some connections in the Twin Cities and knew about Courage Kenny.  They have a tremendous adaptive sports program, so we contacted them.  I think Peyton was about 6 years old when he started wheelchair track & field practice with them.  Shortly after, we were doing a local road race and met Bob Bardwell.  Bob has completed over 100 marathons and had started the National Wheelchair Sports Camp in Stewartville, MN.  He invited us to his camp, and that really changed our families' lives.  It really opened our eyes to the number of adaptive sports available and got us acquainted with several world class athletes.  Many of the camp leaders are Paralympians, World Champions, and World Record Holders.  

How has your track and field journey evolved over the years because of coaching and the success of your sons?

During our first years of competition, we were really new.  I hardly knew anything about the equipment, training, and technique.  However, Peyton and Tyler showed a ton of potential.  At their first Jr. Nationals, both won national titles as a 10-year-old (Peyton) and as a 6-year-old (Tyler).  The more time we spent around world class athletes, we received more tips, techniques, and encouragement.  Because of that, every year we continued to grow and improve.  Every time I have the opportunity to be around other athletes and coaches, I try to pick their brains for ideas on how to help my own coaching.  There are many great adaptive track & field programs around the country, but not very many coaches that really focus on the wheelchair racing side of the sport.  I had a desire to try to fill that gap in Minnesota, and thankful that I have had so much help along the way.  It was 6 or 7 years ago that I was asked to help coach the wheelers for the Rolling Thunder team in Minnesota.  Having some great athletes at the beginning has really helped the success of the team.  We have 3 former athletes that are now competing for the University of Arizona (Peyton Gunnarson, Wyatt Willand, and Aidan Gravelle).  Those 3 really set the tone for the younger athletes, and now you are seeing the outcome because of the example of the older kids.  

What does the future hold for you with coaching and coaching elite athletes such as your sons and Adaylia Borgmeier in the years to come?

I recently had the privilege of coaching the wheelers with the Move United Team USA that competed in Thailand at the World Abilitysport Games.  I was also invited to coach for the USOPC at the US Paralympic Training and Development Camp at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center in California.  I learned so much at both of those events and would love to continue working with wheelers at the International level.  So, hopefully there will be more World Games, Parapan Games and possibly Paralympic events for me in the future.

You are the Southern Head Coach for Rolling Thunder Track and Field, how did you first get involved in that? 

Mark Braun and his mom Claire started a Minnesota chapter for the Rolling Thunder.  They asked if I would be interested in helping coach the team.  That was 6 or 7 years ago, and we are still here and going strong!

What is it like working with MN track and field legend Mark Braun who is the head coach for Rolling Thunder in Minnesota?

Mark is a great kid.  I guess not really a kid anymore!   He was a phenomenal example to my boys when they were first starting out.  He gave them something to aspire to.  It's great at practice when I can have him hop into a chair and do some drills with the rest of the team.  It makes a big difference when they can see one of the coaches doing the drills, technique, etc in the way it's supposed to be done.  I'm pushing to get him (Mark) back on the competitive scene again.  He still has a lot left in the tank, and I think he could still do some pretty special things.

What would you want other people to know about adaptive athletics that they might not know?

Adaptive athletics are crazy competitive.  I think that aspect gets missed when most people only see wheelers racing against 1 or 2 other competitors, or sometimes just themselves.  If they could see they amazing competition at the national and international levels, I think it would really open their eyes.  Also, there are times when you see a big gap between wheelchair racers on the track.  Many times, that difference is in functionality, and not talent.  There are many different classifications for wheelchair racers.  Those different classes have to do with the ability level of the athletes.  Some wheelers have full core and upper limb function, some have limited upper body function, some don't have any core, some only have one upper limb that doesn't function properly.  However, at the state high school level, we are only able to have one category for wheelers.  So, some of the racers that might look slower, could be some of the best in the nation for the respective classification.

Also, adaptive athletes train just as hard, if not harder, as other athletes.  Don't let the adaptive tag fool you, these are some of the finest athletes in the world!