Back in the saddle 


Quadriplegic former freestyle champion returns to ski Whistler

When former World Cup champion freestyle skier Mike Nemesvary last visited Whistler in 1985 he nabbed a top five placing in a competition.

This week has seen him return to hit the slopes once again, this time as a quadriplegic sit-skier with the Whistler Adaptive Ski Program. As he says, it’s a whole different world.

"I am amazed at how much the resort has developed in the past 17 years," he says. "It was just a small town last time I was here."

Scottish-born Nemesvary is no stranger to the media spotlight. Ranked third in the world at the time of the trampoline accident that caused his paralysis, he had notched 10 Canadian and five British titles as well as three World Cups under this belt. He had also been working as a stuntman on movie sets, including the James Bond movie View to a Kill.

Recently he has been hitting the headlines again as the first quadriplegic to drive around the world. He successfully completed the seven month round-trip, travelling through 18 countries and four continents, when he arrived in Ottawa this past October.

With limited movement in his shoulders and biceps, Nemesvary was able to drive the 41,000-plus kilometres in a specially adapted Chevy Blazer, using his right wrist for steering and his left for gas and braking. Horn, indicators, lights and windshield wipers were on panels behind his head. Amazingly the team didn’t get any flat tires, even on the roughest roads in India and Pakistan.

The physical journey may be complete, but Nemesvary says the mission is far from over.

"The Round the World Challenge raised more than $1.5 million (Cdn) for spinal cord research, hugely increased public awareness and improved communication between researchers, but we are still short of our $10 million goal," he explains. "The plan is now to use the trip as a platform for further fundraising."

Public speaking engagements are in the immediate future and a documentary of the epic drive is planned for release prior to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Nemesvary says he also hopes to co-host a series of talks across North America with actor/director and fellow paraplegic Christopher Reeve aimed at boosting corporate contributions. He believes researchers are "on the cusp of finding a cure" for spinal cord injuries.

"It’s an exciting time with the big advances in gene mapping and stem cell research," he says. "Hands are the tools of life, and when you have lost so much independence it’s a struggle to get it back, but advances are being made all the time."

However the new technology and medical breakthroughs can’t come fast enough, even for big achievers like Nemesvary. Difficulties in loading his own personal sit-ski on Whistler Mountain’s lifts and concerns from Whistler Adaptive Ski staff that it was picking up too much speed and could lose control were challenges during his day on the mountain this week.

"It is frustrating that you can’t achieve all the goals you want right away, and we definitely need more adaptive equipment engineers who love to ski," he stresses.

Nemesvary doesn’t pretend acceptance makes everything easy.

"Every day is hard, sure. The hardest time is in the morning when you need help just getting up into your chair," he says. "But anything that gives you independence helps enormously, and I found my physical and psychological healing by getting back into skiing and swimming seven months after my accident."

For that reason, Nemesvary and his friends started up the current British charity Back Up in 1986, aimed at getting people with spinal cord injuries back into sport. In the longer term, the sky is the limit.

"I’d like to get into competitive sit-ski racing, and fly airplanes again like I used to before the accident," he enthuses. "I guess I am just heavily goal orientated."

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