Success on His Own Terms

By Bryan Dowkes

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Mike Nemesvary soared through the air. 

At 24, he was—literally—a young man on top of the world:  a world-class freestyle skier with Olympic aspirations, winner of three World Cups and Canadian Trampoline Champion. It was the spring of 1985 and he had just shot the opening to James Bond: A View to A Kill, performing stunts with the same trampoline on which he was now gaining air. The day was gorgeous, low 20s and sunny. Mike’s BMW 323i was parked out front, and his friends and teammates had gathered to watch him fly. The air was his element. His mother always joked that he had been a breach birth and was trying to get back to that position. 

Mike started gaining height: 16 feet, then 18. He could feel the coil of the trampoline in his legs as he touched down and then soared higher. This for him was just a bit of fun, blowing off steam on a Saturday afternoon. With each bounce, Mike gained more air—19 feet, 20. He threw into a big full-full: a double-twisting, double-back somersault (not a huge jump for someone of Mike’s calibre). But, on this occasion, he got hung up. It’s the term used in the sport that means either you black out temporarily, or you don’t put enough momentum into the maneuver, and you can’t complete the flip. Mike blacked out.

When he regained consciousness, he knew he had come short. He also knew something had gone horribly wrong. Mike could hear his friends yelling in the background as if from inside a cave. “Mike?!” “Are you okay?” “Mike!” “What’s wrong?” 

He was lying flat and vibrations were going through his body from the mat, but his feet felt like they were pointing up at a 45º angle, the angle they had been at when he hit the trampoline. In his mind they were still in that position. He heard someone call an ambulance and tried desperately to get his body to obey his commands. His friends were afraid to move him in case they caused more damage. As he lay on his back, watching the sun fade from the sky, he kept thinking, “Dear God, let this not be true. Dear god.

* * *

When you meet Mike for the first time, it is an unfortunate consequence of human nature that you see the chair first. Now in his 50s, he is no longer the athlete he once was. His legs and ankles are thin, almost childlike, and he often hunches forward in his chair when he talks. He has no feeling below his biceps and is unable to grasp objects or make a fist with his right hand. His left hand barely moves at all. He is always accompanied by his service dog, Jigger. But, if you sit down and talk with Mike, you are met by a powerful intelligence and a fierce independence. As Mike is fond of pointing out, “I am paralyzed from the neck down, not the neck up.” 

* * *

I first met Mike in the winter of 2012, more than 20 years after his accident, when I was working as a tutor at Algonquin College in Ottawa. Once I got to know him, I was moved by his remarkable drive and passion for life. Mike had enrolled at Algonquin as a mature student in the Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) program, and was working on a business plan as part of his final project. I was helping him develop that plan. But, as always with Mike, the project was only a small part of a larger goal. His dreams were much, much bigger. 

Mike’s vision is to develop a fully accessible adventure travel resort for people with disabilities. It will include modified ATVs, excursions, scuba diving, maybe even surfing. The experience will cover everything in terms of safety, equipment and accessibility standards. Clients may get into adventure travel; they may pick a sport: fishing, surfing, scuba diving, trail riding - it could be a hundred different things. Nothing like it exists today, but the time seems right, and Mike’s passion for the idea is contagious.

* * *

 Mike and Jigger at graduation

Mike and Jigger at graduation

After he graduated, I met Mike again to talk about his progress with the business, in the Algonquin Student Commons. It’s a big modern building with floor-to-ceiling windows and open-concept, collaborative workspaces; young students carrying smart phones are everywhere, and you can feel the frantic pace as students rush to meet deadlines. Mike sat in a corner near the Starbucks. Jigger noticed me first, his tail already wagging as I sat down. 

Mike reflected on his college experience. “Going back to school had always been part of a long-term plan. And, I knew it was going to be hard. I have a lot of experience in business, but we are in a different world right now. I think it’s important to understand social media and how that translates into the business model,” Mike told me, thinking back to his time at the college. “You know what the hardest part was? The way some students wouldn’t even look at me. I was just the old quad in the back of the room.” 

Mike faced challenges outside the classroom as well. “Disability awareness has changed quite a bit in the last 20 years, and Algonquin has a Centre for Students with Disabilities (CSD). So I thought, great, there is going to be all kinds of support. But, they had very little support for someone with my level of disability when I came here. Simple things like taking off my jacket, eating lunch or organizing my books. There was no one there for that, so my partner, Mary Anne, had to come in every day to help me through the day, and that was difficult.” 

Mike told me there were times when he thought about giving up. “But, I’m not a quitter. I had a goal in mind and I knew it could be accomplished. I have always been details-oriented and that helped too. In skiing, it’s a game of inches and seconds, so you learn to pay attention to the details. And being a quad, the biggest difference in my life, to someone who is able-bodied, is that I live by schedules. I have to; everything is planned out, and that allows me to keep focused. Mary Anne was my greatest support though. She kept telling me I could do it. She wouldn’t let me quit.”

* * *

After the accident, Mike’s world changed completely. He became what he calls a born-again quadriplegic. “It’s like starting a brand new life from that moment onwards.” Mike had to come to terms with his new life. “I viewed it in a very opinionated way. Either you’re going to live or you’re not. If you aren’t, then find a way to end it. But, if you are going to live, then live. Do life.  And what was the choice? I had a good life; I had all of these gifts. I had a lot to offer. I made that conscious choice to go on with life.”

* * *

Mike lives with Mary Anne and their dogs, Jigger and Sassy, in Manotick, Ontario. When I visited, he showed me his office; it’s like a living vision board that supports his drive forward and reminds him of where he has been. A cabinet in the corner displays trophies and medals from his skiing days, but it takes up a surprisingly small part of the room given that it contains three World Cups. The walls are hung with pictures and posters from various documentaries Mike has been involved in; the Key to the City of Ottawa, which Mike received for his work in disability awareness; and of course, his diploma from Algonquin College. His work area is full of binders and books and a large map of Central America that keeps him focused on his current goal.

“Here, let me show you,” Mike says, wheeling over to a poster depicting him on the top of a mountain in a sit-skiing sled that he helped design. He waves at it proudly. “I was still undergoing rehab when I started to ski again as part of a documentary for Channel 4 in Britain, called Same Game – Different Rules. I went sit-skiing with a sled that I could operate with a hand control. That was the real wake-up call to say that I could get on with life,to go down the hill on a small little bunny run. I felt if I could do that I could do anything.” Mike is not a man whom the word “disabled” even begins to define. He finished rehab, got a modified Audi Quattro and learned to drive again. After that, he got into more sports: swimming, sled racing, scuba diving, even para-ponting (similar to hang gliding). 

* * *

Mike was lucky in a sense: He had a huge group of supporters and a lot of notoriety because of his skiing success. Two of his friends, Jess Stock, head of Europa Sport, and Barbara Broccoli, a film producer, and daughter of the legendary James Bond creator, Albert Broccoli, started a trust to help him rebuild. The goal was to raise £500,000, but after he had £100,000, Mike decided that was more than enough, and he wanted to give back to others. He put together a board of trustees and started The Back Up Trust, a UK charity. Every year, Back Up raises over one million pounds, and since its inception has raised over 20 million, helping tens of thousands of people with spinal cord injuries. 

Back Up works a bit like the Children’s Wish Foundation, giving individuals the support to take on a big challenge they couldn’t do on their own, and helping to unlock their view of the future. In 2003, Back Up helped a client named Andy, who is a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic, go sit skiing in Åre, Sweden. Andy has since written letters to Mike, thanking him for changing his view of what it is possible to accomplish with a disability.

* * *

We move to another part of the room where the wall is dominated by a large map of the world, with little coloured pins forming a line from one side to the other. They are joined by a string, marking the route Mike drove when he circumnavigated the globe. “I get tired of being known as the ex-anything. It’s all in the past. I wanted to do something bold and that was the Round the World Challenge,” Mike says. His eyes light up, and he becomes animated as he discusses the journey.

“I had a Chevrolet Blazer designed to be driven with hand controls and a lift. I was thinking what would be the ultimate trip? I started thinking; what about around the world? It took three and a half years of research. We had fundraising committees set up in all of the big cities in Canada. What really helped was forming a partnership with Christopher Reeve, which gave us the profile to bring big national and international companies on board.”

Mike spent seven months on the road, navigating 20 countries, four continents and two hemispheres, culminating in the fall of 2001, when Mike became the first quadriplegic to circumnavigate the globe. Round the World Challenge raised 1.5 million for spinal cord research. During the trip, Mike gave more than 50 public speaking engagements and visited 40 medical institutions. Mike’s trip was an inspiration for thousands of people living with and without a disability, but he also took inspiration himself. When he returned, he continued working on Mike Nemesvary & Associates (MNA), his public speaking and consultancy firm, through which he has given hundreds of inspirational presentations about his life and experiences.

* * *

After graduating from Algonquin College in the spring of 2013, Mike poured himself into developing Radical Resorts International (RRI).  It’s a suitably big vision for someone with Mike’s character and was the reason he went back to school in the first place. Mike plans to turn RRI into a major player on the global travel stage. He views it as his legacy, his greatest achievement yet. The first resort is planned for Central America, but after that, with the connections Mike has made from his travels and work, who knows? Europe? Australia? India? Anything is possible.

* * *

 Mike and Alex Riverboat Jungle Cruise, Costa Rica

Mike and Alex Riverboat Jungle Cruise, Costa Rica

Mike and I are on our way to a meeting to drum up interest in the new company. I have been working with him over the past year to get RRI off the ground. It’s an exciting time, meeting with potential investors, developing a board of directors and making partnerships with stakeholders. Mike is driving. I watch, mesmerized as always by the adaptability of the human spirit reflected in such a simple action, one which so many of us take for granted. He operates his truck with a special three-pronged joystick. Everything—brakes, acceleration, and steering—is controlled spatially by the way he moves his hand. With no feeling below the shoulders, Mike has to do it all in his head, compensating through years of practice and a heightened sense of spatial awareness. Mike is amped up and gets talking about the real motivation behind Radical Resorts International. 

“With RRI, I want to give people an outlet to explore life on their terms. The real take away, the real value will be when they get home, and they know they have done something they never believed possible, something everyone told them they couldn’t do. That would be the greatest thing: to ignite a fire; to unlock their view of the future; give them that one opportunity to realize that it’s not beyond their ability. Everything I have done in my life, I don’t really think much about that. I have to always be looking towards the future, and what I want to leave when I am gone is something bigger than me, something that will go on making a difference.”

As I watch Mike navigate through traffic, it is hard to picture the skier he once was. He is tied to the earth by the heavy power chair in which he now lives. Paradoxically, the world seems even more open to him than it once was. Even the air is no longer the limit.