Hunter Pinke named 2021 Wilma Rudolph Student-Athlete Achievement Award recipient

UND Football captain recognized among six student-athletes for overcoming the odds to achieve academic, athletic success

Hunter Pinke, center, has been recognized among six other student-athletes nationwide for the way in which he has overcome physical and emotional obstacles to achieve success in his collegiate career. Photo by Russell Hons/UND Athletics.

CLEVELAND — The National Association of Academic and Student-Athlete Development Professionals (N4A) has announced the recipients of its 2021 Wilma Rudolph Student-Athlete Achievement Awards. The N4A Wilma Rudolph Student-Athlete Achievement Award honors student-athletes who have overcome great personal, academic, and/or emotional odds to achieve academic success while participating in intercollegiate athletics. They have persevered and made significant personal strides toward success.

“The N4A is honored to recognize six outstanding student-athletes with its annual Wilma Rudolph Award. These student-athletes have overcome many obstacles in their lives, and demonstrated grit, resilience, determination, and strength. They are outstanding examples of the power of the human spirit, and we are proud to honor them,” said Ursula Gurney, N4A President and Deputy Director of Athletics/SWA, University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC).

The 2021 Wilma Rudolph recipients are: Kaia Harris, Purdue University; Gia Hodges, University of Tennessee; Hunter Pinke, University of North Dakota; Bryand Rincher, Florida State University; Charles (Tre) Tipton, University of Pittsburgh; and Gwendolyn Zeckowski, University of Maryland. These six student-athletes will be honored in conjunction with the 2021 N4A Virtual Convention on June 23, which is Wilma Rudolph’s birthday.

Kaia Harris, Purdue University

Kaia Harris started her college career at the Air Force Academy, where she was a cadet for one year before transferring to Purdue University in her hometown of West Lafayette, Indiana. Harris is currently a discus and hammer thrower on the Purdue Track & Field team while pursuing two degrees, in Marketing and Kinesiology. In early November, 2019, Harris’ second year at Purdue, she was involved in a near-fatal motor vehicle accident. She was life-lined to the hospital, where she stayed for nearly two weeks after suffering extensive injuries to her pelvis and internal organs. Harris was unable to walk for two months and had to complete extensive physical therapy and an additional surgery on her road to recovery. All of this was simply to regain a normal lifestyle. Despite this, she finished her classes for the fall and took a full caseload of classes the following semester. Although she is still not fully recovered, Harris has worked extensively to get back into competition shape and is now competing again. This season, her first year back, Harris earned the No. 2 mark in Purdue history in the discus with a throw of 54.11 meters. This mark qualified her for the NCAA East Preliminary Round.

Gia Hodges, University of Tennessee

Upon arriving on University of Tennessee (UT) campus, Gia Hodges made her presence known through her academics and her incredible positive attitude that was contagious among her teammates. But Hodges’ path to get to Tennessee was not easy. Her family has been fractured in various ways: divorce, violence, emotional torment, addiction and neurological disease. Hodges’ biological father struggles with addiction, while her adoptive father lives with an extremely rare, neuromuscular disease. The impacts of her adoptive fathers’ diseases are both physical and emotional. Since her adoptive father was diagnosed, she instantly took on a role in life that most children would never have to even consider — she became a caretaker. Soon, that caretaker role extended to her biological father who was placed into a medically induced coma in Knoxville. She was now the power of attorney to both of her fathers. Despite these unimaginable challenges and responsibilities, Hodges has excelled in the classroom, majoring in neuroscience and psychology. Her plan after graduation is medical school, getting her one step closer to becoming a doctor.

Hunter Pinke, University of North Dakota

Hunter Pinke

Hunter Pinke grew up in a small town in North Dakota and is a third generation University of North Dakota (UND) student-athlete. Pinke started working with his family at a young age which taught him many valuable lessons. He participated in every extracurricular activity he could, but basketball was his favorite as a young kid because he was able to play with his best friend, Zach. Zach passed away in a car accident at the age of 18, and Pinke’s love for basketball was never the same, which is when he turned to football. He accepted an offer to play at UND to continue the family tradition. During winter break his junior year, Pinke was involved in a horrific ski accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He was devastated. After two weeks in the hospital, he was transferred to a rehab facility where he was in physical therapy from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every weekday. He came back to North Dakota in March 2020 and began to learn his new normal. He was still taking classes and remained part of the football program. As his senior season at UND began, his teammates voted him captain and he began to realize that this was only the beginning of his story. He had a lot more to accomplish!

Bryand Rincher, Florida State University

Bryand Rincher arrived at Florida State University (FSU) as a track and field student-athlete during the summer of 2018. Prior to Florida State, Rincher faced adversity in many areas of his life including academics. Academics did not come easy to him, however with the help of his learning specialist he began to improve in the classroom. Things were looking up until July 2019 when he was involved in a grease fire that left much of his body with severe burns and forced him to spend several months in a hospital. In the spring of 2020, he began to enroll in classes again after facing many surgeries and constant rehab to help the healing process. This past spring, he was able to return to FSU, where he is applying for the sports management program and working out with the track and field team again.

Charles (Tre) Tipton, University of Pittsburgh

For Tre Tipton, sports always came easy, but when he began his football career at the University of Pittsburgh, he started to lose himself. His freshman year he began dating another student-athlete. That relationship quickly became toxic, and he felt he had no one to speak to. This led him to contemplate suicide, and during his freshman year he attempted suicide three times. Tipton’s sophomore year did not go without challenges, as he suffered a collapsed lung in a game against Miami which left him in the ICU. After recovering from that injury, he felt stronger than ever and was determined to get back on the field. However, his junior year he tore his ACL and was unable to play football that season. Though it was devastating, this also led Tipton to start an organization known as L.O.V.E., which is a program designed to help athletes deal with depression, anxiety and injury through the community of student-athletes. Tipton suffered another ACL tear prior to his redshirt junior season, but did not give up and decided to come back for another year to prove to himself he could play the sport he loved.

Gwendolyn Zeckowski, University of Maryland

Gwendolyn Zeckowski was a normal student-athlete at the University of Maryland at the start of 2020, however on February 11, 2020 her life changed forever. She suffered a series of ischemic strokes. After multiple tests, Zeckowski was diagnosed with Moyamoya Disease (MMD), which is a rare and progressive disease that affects the major arteries and blood vessels in the brain. The only solution was brain surgery. With the pandemic escalating, the thought of flying across the country to Stanford for surgery was terrifying, but her condition was getting worse. She ended up getting surgery on June 9, 2020, and after almost three weeks in California, she was able to return to Maryland. She returned to school in August, though now she had to work twice as hard due to the effects of the strokes she had suffered, but she did not let that stop her. She was back in school full time and able to start working out to gain her physical strength back. Today, she is on track to graduate and compete in pole vaulting again.

About Wilma Rudolph: Despite being told as a child she would never walk again, Wilma Rudolph relentlessly pursued her dreams becoming an international track and field star. At the height of her career, “the fastest woman in the world” used her platform to shed light on social issues. Rudolph competed in the 1956 Olympic Games and won a bronze medal in 4×100 relay. Four years later, she headed to the 1960 Summer Olympics, determined to earn gold. Her performance in Rome cemented her as one of the greatest athletes of the 20th Century. She won three gold medals and broke several world records. Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at the same Olympic Games. The indoor track and dormitory at Tennessee State University are named in honor of Rudolph. She died of a brain tumor on November 12, 1994.

About N4A: N4A, which has been in existence since 1975, is a diverse educational service and professional non-profit organization. Membership of N4A includes academic support and student services personnel who are committed to enhancing opportunities for academic, athletics and personal success for student-athletes. For more information on N4A, visit www.nfoura.org. N4A is administered by NACDA, which is in its 56th year. For more information on NACDA and the 17 professional associations that fall under its umbrella, please visit www.nacda.com