The instant he felt the break in his neck, Mike Shaw knew he was paralyzed.
The ski coach had done the trick, a Nose Butter 720, two revolutions slightly off-axis after leaving the jump, thousands of times. He was demonstrating it for three of his skiers that afternoon on a mountain in Colorado, during a training run leading up to the first World Cup freeskiing event of the season.
“I landed on my feet in some punchy snow and my skis stopped dead,” says the 29-year-old from Vernon, B.C. His face hit the snow and his body shot forward, with his legs and skis whipping back towards him like a scorpion tail. Then, a snap.
The jump itself had carried Shaw 10 metres. “I hit my face because I didn’t even register that I’d landed on my feet,” he recalls, three years after the accident that would change his life. And that’s when time slowed down. “I was a mind in a corpse,” he remembers, sliding another 12 metres. As he slid, he felt a sharp pain swell in his neck. Then nothing. He laid there in the sun and the snow, a perfect afternoon, and became ultra-aware. “I knew I’d paralyzed myself.”
He thought about the trick. “I wanted redemption, to be able to do it over.” Then he thought of facing his parents. Then what his life was going to be like, unable to use his legs, and perhaps even his entire body. Then he thought of Josh Dueck. Shaw’s coach growing up who was paralyzed 10 years ago and went on to become an Paralympic medallist. “My next thought was, ‘I need to talk to Josh.’”
Shaw was helicoptered to Denver and at midnight doctors performed a posterior cervical laminectomy, where the back part of the vertebra is removed in order to alleviate pressure on the spinal cord, letting it swell uninhibited. Two metal rods and 10 screws were then put in place. Doctors also fused five of his vertebrae together. They hoped his nerves would regenerate, but they didn’t expect him to walk again.
When Shaw woke up in the recovery ward, he was able to move his elbows. Two days later he was able to get his legs to move. “They were super hard to control,” he remembers, and he had no real sensation. On Christmas Day, they stood him up. It was just eight days after the accident.
Two weeks later, Shaw was flown back to Vancouver, where he spent two months at Vancouver General Hospital in rehab. “Physio was all about preparing me for life after the hospital – from the wheelchair to my bed or the toilet.” But Shaw was determined.
When Shaw began to learn to walk again they put him in a big Jolly Jumper-like harness. His doctors were still careful not to get his hopes up. “The primary focus was just getting me to learn to adapt to survive and have a personal routine,” he says.
When he moved back home to Vernon, Shaw was still reliant on a wheelchair. At first, the doctors said that walking was out of the question, and that he would be lucky to be upright all the time. Nevertheless, he focused on walking.
Three months after the accident, Shaw decided to retire his wheelchair. But he had no illusions about what laid ahead. “You have to accept what’s happened with trauma,” he says of his cautious optimism from the moment he felt the feeling fade from his body that day on the mountain. “Self-pity and wanting my old body wasn’t going to get me anywhere. What I had to do was make my current situation as good as it was going to be.”
Shaw was introduced to an AlterG anti-gravity treadmill. Five months after the accident Shaw did his first run. After a couple of months weaning himself off of the AlterG, he started running on a normal treadmill. In June 2014, just seven months after his accident, Shaw entered a charity 5K in Vancouver. “I came second last,” Shaw says. His goal was 90 minutes. “I finished it in 1:29:11. When I got to the finish, everybody was gone home.” Shaw attributes a significant part of his success in setting goals. “That run was one of my challenges. I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to make it without my body shutting down.”
Made it! Finished the 5km walk/run/roll in 1h29m11s. Wanted to do it in under 1.5 hours. STOKED and TIRED. #scotiabankcharitychallenge #gotaparticipationribbon #itsamedalactually #5km #race #walk #imadeit #igotthis #whatsnext #SCIBC #legsaretired #ithink #theyfeelfunny #weird #nowtimeforacelebrationcaesar thanks for being there with me @ashlintipper @dave_weale Chris Bouchard & Rachel Findler !!!
A friend suggested he participate in their Wings for Life Run in May of 2015. The global event takes place in dozens of cities at the same time, and instead of a finish line, runners are chased by a slow-moving car. The goal is to see how far you can run before the car catches up to you.
Wings for Life exists as a fundraiser for spinal cord research, so Shaw was the perfect ambassador. “My recovery is due to innovations that came from this sort of fundraising,” Shaw points out. “The motto of the event is ‘run for those who can’t.’ I feel a responsibility to those people who were in the hospital at the same time as I was and didn’t get to walk out of there.”
A week before the Wings for Life race in Niagara Falls, Ont., Shaw decided to try running outside for the first time since that initial 5K. “I still have issues with co- ordination and balance,” he says. “There are no treadmill bars to rely on out there.” He got just 1.5K in and had to turn back.
Shaw was defeated. “I didn’t expect it to be that difficult,” he says. “My running is very cognitive. I have to think about each stride.” Shaw had set a public goal for the race of 8k. “I went into it worrying ‘I’m an ambassador and I can’t even run 3K, what am I doing?’”
Shaw went to Niagara Falls with Josh Dueck, who competed in a handcycle. “I remember the light from the sunrise hitting the mist off the Falls,” he says, instead of the challenge of each step. When the chaser car finally caught up to him, he’d lasted 90 minutes, but he’d covered 9.87 kilometres.
This year, Shaw has been training hard and has another big goal for Wings for Life 2016: “I’m going to do more than 12K,” he says, still not sure of his limits.
The Healing Agent, a documentary on Shaw, can be seen below. The 26-minute, mini-documentary was released on Thursday, May 5.
This feature appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of Canadian Running.