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Family of former Alcoa student sues Kentucky college; alleges coaches ignored deadly heat stroke during "grueling" practice

"Ultimately, the defendants' failure to protect the student-athletes on the wrestling team resulted in the death of Grant Brace," the lawsuit said.

WHITLEY COUNTY, Ky. — UPDATE (Aug. 26): One of the coaches accused of negligence and causing a 20-year-old to suffer a heat stroke is now working at Saraland City Schools. 

Coach Jordan Countryman is now working as Saraland City Schools' wrestling coach. The superintendent of the school system, Dr. Aaron Milner, released a statement to a sister station about the decision to hire Countryman.

"Saraland City Schools prioritizes safety in all endeavors both in and out of the classroom," he said. "Every employment decision made in Saraland City Schools is solely based on my recommendation as the superintendent and follows a vetting process that includes criminal background clearance through the Alabama State Department of Education working in partnership with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency."

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A family is suing the University of the Cumberlands, saying a former Alcoa High School athlete died from a preventable heat stroke during what they called a "grueling" wrestling practice a year ago.

According to the law firm Hare; Wynn in Lexington, Kentucky, 20-year-old Grant Brace wrestled for the university and died from a heat stroke during a practice session on August 31, 2020.

The complaint was filed by father Kyle Brace, mother Jacqueline Brace and sister Kaylee Wagnon, and names several defendants, including the university, university president Larry Cockrum, athletic director Chris Kraftick, wrestling coaches Jordan Countryman and Jake Sinkovics, and others.

The lawsuit alleged Grant Brace had a known medical condition that required more hydration breaks, and that wrestling coaches ignored his distress and harassed him as his mental and physical condition worsened due to overexertion in the heat.

"Brace suffered from narcolepsy and ADHD, and his high school made accommodations for his conditions in both academics and sports. Brace was promised similar accommodations would be made on the wrestling team at the University of the Cumberlands. Those accommodations were often ignored or the cause of Brace being singled out by the coaching staff," the law firm said. "Ultimately, the defendants' failure to protect the student-athletes on the wrestling team resulted in the death of Grant Brace."

The lawsuit claims coaches forced athletes into "punishment practice" to sprint up and down a steep hill it called "punishment hill" several times after one of the wrestlers failed to complete a fundraising assignment.

The lawsuit said Brace had to sit down out of exhaustion before one of the coaches threatened to kick him off the team, and Brace then ran another circuit before saying, "I can't do this anymore."

The complaint alleged Grant then returned to the wrestling room, laid on a mat and begged for water before coaches yelled at athletes who tried to help him, saying the coaches told him he needed to "get the water himself."

The lawsuit said Brace continued to beg for water while suffering from heat stroke and saying things like, "I feel like I am going to die, I feel like my head is going to explode."

The lawsuit alleged Brace then began uttering "nonsensical statements" and charged a member of the team who tackled him to the ground, saying it was consistent with signs of heat stroke and atypical of his normal behavior.

The lawsuit said the coaches continued to ignore his deteriorating condition and kicked him out of the wrestling facility, instead of giving him care. The complaint said Brace was later found dead outside of a construction fence on campus with his hands clinched in the grass and dirt "after a desperate and erratic search for assistance and water." 

The complaint also alleged the university had allowed and turned a blind eye to wrestling coaches perpetuating a "toxic and abusive" culture that caused harm to student-athletes, claiming one of the constant refrains from coaches was "water is for the weak."

The lawsuit also named several alleged incidents of coaches punishing athletes with physical or emotional abuse, including forcing athletes to run at high speed and full incline on a treadmill for approximately an hour, or forcing another athlete to walk around campus with 45-pound weights in each arm for an hour while one of the coaches followed behind in a scooter berating them.

The University of the Cumberlands issued a statement about the lawsuit and alleged incidents, saying it does not feel the complaint is a "fair reflection" of its wrestling program:

"Yesterday, University of the Cumberlands received notice of the lawsuit filed by the attorneys for Grant Brace’s family. Grant's death was a tragic loss for his family, his friends, the University community, and all who knew him. In the wake of this tragedy, the University has tried its best to be sympathetic and respectful to Grant’s family and to ensure that all of its athletic programs, including the wrestling program, were and are being operated in a safe manner. 

The University questions several of the allegations in the complaint and does not feel that the complaint is a fair reflection of its wrestling program. Out of respect for all concerned and for the legal process, the University will not address individual allegations publicly but will instead present its defenses to the claims through the legal proceeding."

Brace's family said in the lawsuit they have suffered mental and emotional distress in the wake of his death that led them to file the lawsuit and seek treatment.

The family is accusing the defendants of gross negligence, intentional and negative infliction of emotional distress to Grant Brace, wrongful death, reckless homicide and 2nd degree manslaughter as a result of negligence per se, and several other counts of emotional distress and negligence to specific defendants. 

The family is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, calling for monetary compensation in an amount to be determined by a jury.