GADSDEN, Ala. (WIAT) — After spending eight years as a Marine and traveling to over 30 different countries, Michael Nelson learned how to be strong. After crashing his motorcycle in August 2012, he had to learn how to be even stronger. This time on his own.
Leaving a high school reunion in Gadsden 10 years ago, Nelson made it about one mile down the road before he ran onto loose gravel, lost control and crashed his beloved Kawasaki Drifter.
“My arm went one way and my body went the other, and it tore all the nerves off my spine and cut my neck open,” Nelson said. “[First responders] couldn’t stop the bleeding on my neck and said that I was probably just going to bleed out in the helicopter, but God put his finger on it or something.”
Nelson was airlifted to a hospital in Huntsville, where he spent about a month and a half with a broken back, going in and out of consciousness.
“I don’t remember anything about being there,” Nelson said.
He was transported to a rehab facility in Gadsden where he finally came to. And the first thing he asked about after waking up? His bike.
“I noticed I was laying in the bed and I couldn’t move my right arm, I tried to get up and I couldn’t move my legs or anything. I seen a wheelchair over in the corner and I’m like ‘oh, crap,’ I hope my motorcycle is okay,” said Nelson.
Doctors at the facility told Michael that an MRI scan had determined that all the nerves on his right side had been severed. The nerves in his arm, they said, had been completely severed and virtually had no chance of growing back.
The whole right side of his body was paralyzed. He was told that he would probably never walk again.
That meant that he wouldn’t be able to do the things he loved, like riding horses or participating in the Barbarian Challenge, a race full of obstacles held at Noccalula Falls every year. Nelson had participated for the first time a year before the accident and planned on training to win the competition the next year.
Shocked, hurt, but thankful to be alive, Nelson spent time at the facility wheelchair-bound, learning how to accomplish everyday tasks by using the left side of his body.
Being unable to do things without assistance put Nelson in a bad place mentally, but once he remembered that he was “trained to improvise, adapt, and overcome every situation life threw at him,” things changed.
“I guess the Marine in me told myself that I wasn’t going to live like this. I’m going to figure something out,” Nelson said.
He started off by doing tasks that he called “normal, everyday things” like changing the oil in his truck. It was frustrating, but he was eventually able to regain the grip in his right hand without doctors’ help. He also walked with a cane for a while.
June 2013 came around and with only a week to go before the Barbarian Challenge, Michael decided to sign up. He didn’t know how well he was going to do in the competition due to his limited mobility, but he decided to try anyway.
“I made it a point not to skip any obstacles,” Nelson said. “I had to figure out a way to do it without hurting myself too bad.”
The most difficult obstacle for him during the 2012 challenge was the rope climb.
“I knew I had my one good arm and I had got my grip back in my other arm so I jumped on the rope and I pulled myself up with my one strong arm and kind of used my feet to hold it in a place where I could swing my dead arm up above my other hand and at least grab hold,” Nelson said. “And I think that was the biggest thing that I conquered. I mean it was something so simple, just climbing the rope.”
Nelson said that completing the challenge in 2013 gave him the drive to do it annually, even though each year presented its own challenges.
He explained that he wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to compete in this year’s Barbarian Challenge, which took place Saturday, because of physical ailments that stem from the wreck that happened 10 years ago. Still, Nelson decided to get a gym membership and train so that he was able to confidently participate this summer.
When the time came, Nelson rose to the Barbarian Challenge, completing the course for the tenth time. This year, though, there was an added bonus: his fiancée Brittany was waiting for him at the finish line.
Michael Nelson used three things that the Barbarian Challenge officials say are necessary to complete the race: determination, dedication and drive.
After 10 years of work, it was a perfect finish.