40. Through Grit Alone

40. Through Grit Alone

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

Through Grit Alone

The difference between the impossible and the possible lies in a man’s determination.
 ~Tommy Lasorda

The only thing going through my mind was “hang on.” I didn’t have any brilliant near-death thoughts or see any flashes of light. I had been riding on the back of a pickup truck with my buddies from the summer landscaping crew when the impatient driver of an 18-wheeler tried to pass us. He didn’t make it past us in time to avoid the narrow bridge ahead. When he tried to get back into his lane, he struck us, and I went flying over the side of the truck.

There wasn’t even time for one of my buddies to grab me. I tried my best to keep my grip on the side of the truck, but my fingers slipped and I tumbled down to the pavement. Attached to our pickup was a trailer that held three tons of lawnmowers. My leg got stuck in a brace on that trailer, which meant that I got dragged down the hot Georgia asphalt for 324 feet before the truck came to a stop.

When at last all was quiet and still, I could not move. My leg was trapped in the brace, with all the weight of that trailer resting on top of it. The trailer was acting as a tourniquet: if anyone moved it, I would bleed to death.

My best friend, looking ghostly pale, came to attend to me while others went to phone the hospital and my parents. I was just eighteen years old, and this was the summer after I graduated from high school. Instead of having the time of my life at college with my buddies, I was going to spend most of the next year on an operating table or in a hospital bed.

Drifting in and out of consciousness for those first couple of days meant that I had no real handle on what was happening to me. I knew I’d been in an accident and I knew it was pretty bad, but it did not occur to me that there might be any permanent damage. I was shocked, then, to hear a doctor’s voice in the background saying to my parents, “We’re going to have to amputate his legs.” My parents negotiated with the doctor to save one.

Surgeons removed my right leg. Unfortunately, the left leg would never heal correctly, not even after two dozen surgeries. My heel bone had been ripped off, and no matter what they tried to do to reconstruct one, it was never quite right.

For years, a traumatic brain injury left me lost and drowning in depression. I lost count of how many prescription drugs I was taking, chased by alcohol. My glory years as a high school athlete were long gone. Now I could barely run around a track without my left foot opening up and getting infected, landing me back in the hospital. I couldn’t stand for any length of time.

It took twelve years before I made the decision that would get my life back on track: I had the other leg amputated.

In no time at all, I found that I had an uncanny ability to balance on my new prosthetics, and that I was able to do much more now with no legs than I was with my one “real” leg. But I felt like I was living what Thoreau called a life of “quiet desperation.” There was no vision, no purpose. I made God a deal: “Open a door for me and I will run through it!”

Weeks later, I browsed through magazines in a bookstore and saw two stories that gave me the answer to my prayer. One was the story of Sarah Reinertsen, a single-amputee who had just completed an Ironman triathlon race; and the other was the story of a soldier returning from Iraq missing one of his legs.

Though the circumstances were different, the young soldier’s story was similar to my own. I wanted to do something to help others like me. I had never heard of an Ironman triathlon, but as I read Sarah’s story, something lit up inside me.

It’s known as the toughest one-day endurance race in the world; a 2.4 mile ocean swim, then a 112 mile bike ride through the lava fields, then you warm up for a marathon: a 26.2 mile run. Each discipline is timed and you must complete it in seventeen hours. I had no business even thinking about it — I didn’t know how to swim, had never ridden a bike with prosthetics, and since my accident I had never run even .2 of the 26.2 miles that I would have to run. That day changed my life; I finally had a direction. I was going to do this crazy, unthinkable thing.

The best successes are achieved with lots of support, and I was lucky enough to have a whole team of people get behind me. Not only did I have no legs, but I was also overweight, bordering on diabetes, nearly forty years old, and broke. All I had going for me was sheer grit. My parents thought I was crazy, but a local swim coach offered to help train me after-hours in a high school pool, and a local spin studio owner taught me how to ride a bike. My prosthetist worked on customized legs for me after hours and for free. A fellow triathlete offered to become my manager and help raise sponsorship money to get me to Hawaii for the Ironman, and others offered to train with me.

Shortly before the race, I broke a vertebra in my back during a bike accident, and a bad person stole my running legs. Training was brutal, but despite it all, I felt such a sense of hope.

October 13, 2007 was the big day. With a good-luck kiss on the cheek from my on-site coach, I waded into the water… and got kicked in the eye almost immediately. Now not only did I have no legs, but I was also blind in one eye. Still, I got through the swim. The winds were so strong that I was almost knocked off my bike several times, and I was disoriented and weaving by the time we got to the run, but after dumping pools of sweat out of my prosthetic legs every few miles, I crossed the finish line with only 17 minutes to spare.

“Scott Rigsby, you are an Ironman!” the announcer, Mike Reilly, called out. “The first double-amputee in the world to finish the Hawaiian Ironman.”

It would take weeks for my body to heal from all the injuries it sustained, but the memory of making history and changing the world would last a lifetime. Unthinkable? Yeah, right!

~Scott Rigsby with Jenna Glatzer

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