How I Relearned How To Walk And Almost Became A Professional Athlete

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” – Fred Rogers

We were in a white, 1985 Chrysler LeBaron convertible. It had red pinstripes, chrome door handles and a burgundy pleather interior. It was the height of 1980’s commuter cool.

(we were so cool in our LeBaron Convertible)

(we were so cool in our LeBaron Convertible)

The top was down on a warm evening in June, 1988 as we cruised Route 120 westbound toward McHenry, IL.

My left arm, broken during a backyard neighborhood-record attempt was plaster casted up to my left shoulder and hung in a sling resting on my left thigh.

My mother twisted her hair, I twirled two dollars in my free hand thinking about the cast coming off in a week, and my younger sister floated her hands in the wind while we listened to music.

The other driver and her passengers were also carefree, after drinking for six hours. They had just left the bar and were speeding along in her cream-with-faux-wood-panel station wagon.

At five o’clock, drunk and frustrated with rush hour traffic, the woman accelerated to 65 miles per hour and moved out from behind a box truck in a no-passing zone.

The car appeared right in front of us. My mother swerved but we were trapped.

Steve Jobs said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect the dots looking backward.” The dots of what happened next took years to connect.

The cars hit head on and spun to opposite sides of the road.

The seat belt shredded my organs as I folded over it.

The cast on my left arm flew up into my face, breaking my nose and snapping my left humerus near my shoulder.

My right arm punched the dashboard, breaking above the wrist into a ninety-degree angle.

Blood gushed from my nose onto my cast and pumped out from my broken bones, torn muscles and damaged organs into my body.

Steam spewed from the busted radiator; coolant and gasoline seeped from the engine as the cars came to a halt.

Before drifting into shock, I opened my eyes. My sister commanded our mother:

“Mom, sit down. Sit down, Mom, you’re bleeding.”

Her head was lacerated by the rearview mirror, but she checked the cars for flames anyway, more concerned about our safety than her own.

My sister’s pelvis screamed with pain and seemed broken, but she sat calmly scared after confirming Mom and I were alert.

A crowd gathered. A boy peered over my raised window asking if I was ok. My broken arm sat tweaked on my lap with nowhere to hide. He stared at it.

Unable to move, my casted left arm hung loose from the broken shoulder.

One person put paper towels to my mother’s head while another pried my door open with a crowbar. The Jaws of Life were en route but the paramedics didn’t think I had time to wait. I was fading out.

After hours of surgery I awoke in intensive care. I blurred in and out for three days, recalling muffled voices and only still-picture memories until a massive blood transfusion woke me up.

This began the longest recovery of my life with steep physical ups, downs and a mental battle with PTSD.

It was like a f%$^&*g dot machine spewing dots across my universe and I had no connections. Just pain, agony, fear and anxiety.

After five days I was released from intensive care and could start eating a little bit again, mostly liquids. I spent six weeks pronate, double-casted, in traction with sutures pulling half my upper body back together.

My world was 18 square feet in a double room: a bed, two pillows, a remote control and a window overlooking central Illinois wetlands dotted with oak trees and the Flight For Life helipad.

(this was once my home and where I relearned how to walk)

(this is where I relearned how to walk)

I crushed on the nurses. They held my food, helped me pee, wiped me and gave me baths via sponge. I was embarrassed at my helplessness and my infatuation. I cried quietly at night after my parents went home. I was in pain, mentally and physically, and could only wait. It was too much for a ten-year old.

(I was in love with all of my nurses. it was embarrassing)

(when I was 10 I thought my nurses looked like this and I was in love with them all; It was embarrassing)

But Mom and Dad were always there for me. Head stitched, she was with me in the ICU. Dad was in the emergency room standing over me after I arrived, waiting for surgery. Sometimes at night he brought me Oreos from the vending machine and chalky, boxed hospital milk. The snack tasted like golden angel tears and birthday cake and I felt normal for a minute.

I had a lot of time to watch old movies and think. I felt totally alone surrounded by people in Northern Illinois Medical Center, McHenry, Illinois, Room 736 Bed 2.

After six weeks, hundreds of cards, tens of bouquets, balloons, a 1988 LA Rams signed team football, countless visits from my brother and sister (who’s pelvis luckily was not fractured but horribly bruised), I was unshackled.

But I couldn’t sit up.

I couldn’t stand.

I could no longer walk.

My muscles atrophied. I was like an amoeba.

(amoebas are shapeless organisms that do not walk)

(I felt like an amoeba)

Learning to walk again changed my life. It changed how I learn and connected some dots.

The desire to move comes from the innate desire for freedom. Freedom is choosing our own path. Choosing our own path means having strength.

Sometimes getting stronger just hurts.

But you can’t really lose it all unless you give up. Never give up. There are always little things you can do to get stronger, or ways you can help build others’ strength.

The secret to learning how to walk, getting stronger and bolstering the breadth of choice in your life is this: short, brief, difficulty followed by recovery. This creates a foundation from which all else can build.

20 seconds of insane courage is all it takes to change your life for the better. It is the same for walking, or climbing, running 50 miles or getting off the couch and starting. We each have our own obstacles. All of life’s big goals and overcoming surly obstacles starts with short, difficult movements – mind and body.

First I sat up in bed, then laid back down. I repeated this for a day, then moved to a blue vinyl chair. I sat for a few hours, then went back to bed. We repeated to exhaustion. It hurt. I grew stronger.

In the beginning, forget the rest and focus on the small, really hard things. Practice those. Attack those. Pour your courage into those insanely hard efforts and the foundation will set.

After a day of sitting in the chair, I stood. I felt what a baby must feel: exuberance, hope..and almost fell over. Sit-stand, sit-stand, repeat. I did this for hours until I couldn’t. Short, hard work that slowly retrained my legs.

Once I could stand, wobbly, I stepped; just one step.

After a couple more days: two steps.

On the fifth day: across the room.

Then we ventured out around the nurse station, using visitors seats along the walls to rest. Twenty pounds of plaster made my muscles burn.

Once the base was built a little bit,  progress improved.

I was finally walking again. It only took short, fantastically hard effort and insane amounts of courage to face the pain.

The dots began connecting.

(3 weeks after I was released, my right cast was shortened and would be fully removed 2 weeks later)

(3 weeks after I was released, my right cast was shortened and was finally removed 2 weeks later)

All my future training endeavors were based around the lessons I learned when re-learning to walk. I created interval training programs that helped me become an elite athlete and almost a professional.

I became a semi-professional climber, ultra-marathon runner, XC mountain bike racer, triathlete and surfer. I logged over 300 SCUBA dives in two years, climbed the Three Sisters in Oregon with my friend Chuck in 19 hours, 42 minutes and the North Ridge of Mt Stuart in Washington in 24 hours, 32 minutes non-stop. I did things and pushed myself beyond my assumed capabilities.

(I took this picture of my friend Chuck on the 16th pitch of Mt Stuart, about 2,500 feet up)

(I took this picture of my friend Chuck on the 16th pitch of Mt Stuart, about 2,500 feet up)

But as we get older, we get busier. Careers, kids, relationships, life takes precedent and we lose our edge.

Whether I was training for climbing or running, I came up with a simple, hard, fast, secret interval system that builds strength and fitness based on how I relearned to walk.

If you want to stay on your couch and tell yourself you’ll get off next year – that’s fine, this will wait, but you can have it now. If you want to get stronger, look better and feel better, this secret is for you.  Do this for a couple months and your body, maybe your life, will change.

(the couch looks innocent, but it's eating you)

(the couch looks innocent, but it’s eating you)

The first thing you need is 20 seconds of courage. Then all you need is less than 15 minutes every day.

If you do this every day for 30 days you will notice a difference. You will get stronger, leaner and fitter. Your goals will get closer. Do it every day and you’ll become powerful.

Most of us have learned how to walk at least once. This is for those of us that want to take back our freedom – of choice (what we can do), of health (how we look and feel), and of power (what options we have), so we can walk our own path forever.

These small hard workouts you can do anywhere; just four exercises combined together.

I call them PushSquats.

It will work out your whole body.  Whether you’re just starting or are a professional athlete, this system can help. It helps me every day.

My good friend Sylvie, a professional trainer and model, produced a few short videos of these techniques just for us.

First, The Upper Body (The Push) will get your arms, back and chest stronger.

Do as many of these as you can. AS MANY AS YOU CAN IN ONE REPETITION.

If you’re strong you can maybe do 25, but maybe you can only do 10 or 15. That’s fine.

If you can’t do a full push-up, that’s okay. Do it in the half push-up position. The idea is to challenge yourself enough and build strength.

Right now I can do 100 pushups in a row because of this program. I feel and look strong.

Next, The Lower Body (The Squats)

Jump Squats

Do three sets of 40 jumps resting 1 minute between sets.

Split Jumps

Do 3 sets of 40 jumps, resting 1 minute between sets.

Gunther Hops

Do 100 in a row

If you can’t do this all at once, cut it in half or less. Start small and build. Everything starts small. This is a first step that will make you stronger, you just need to start.

And if you did it, congratulations! You’ll feel these tomorrow. You can do Pushes and Squats in the same session or break it up and do pushes in the morning and squats at night or vice versa. Whatever works for you as long as you do it consistently and as long as you don’t get stressed about it. The goal is: no stress, start small, get strong.

Here’s the summary:

Pushes:

drop and do one set of as many pushups or half push-ups as you can

Squats:

120 jump squats (3×40 if you’re in decent shape) (3×20 if you’re in ok shape) (3×10 if you’re just starting out)

120 split jumps (3×40) (break it down same as above if you’re just starting out)

100 gunther hops (50 if you’re in ok shape) (30 if you’re just starting out)

=340 …or whatever you can do to get started

Feel easy? Make it harder:

1. Don’t sit down between each set

2. Add 20 more jumps to each rep

3. Reduce the rest time between reps

It sounds easy but it’s not.

I do this a lot when I get to my hotel room in the evening, or if I don’t have enough time (or am feeling tired or too anxious) to run.

Whenever I do this I think of the first day in 1988 when I stood up again for the first time and how lucky I am now to be doing the things I love. Twenty seconds of insane courage.

If you think this plan will help someone else, please share it.

It was a long, hard road back to health for me. I suffered physically and emotionally. But I made it. My PTSD was treated and I let go of the anxiety, became a stronger person, and almost became a professional climber. I experienced epic moments of a lifetime. It took a lot of helpers and a lot of 20-second courageous moments.  The dots make a lot more sense.

I wish you the best on your journey. Whether you’re recovering from an accident or starting a new phase of your life, it’s a new beginning. You’re not too late to get started and you’re not too early to get better.

Start now and tell me how you feel in the morning.

(thanks to Lacey Sadoff for editing this post, Sylvie Patrick for recording the short videos and Chuck Thomas for originally introducing me to jump squats)

12 thoughts on “How I Relearned How To Walk And Almost Became A Professional Athlete

  1. Thanks for reliving the experience for the benefit of others, I know that the process can be both painful and liberating. Best, Tina

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