Mike Schultz: Life is about adapting
ASPEN, Colo. -- The note wasn't terribly long. One-hundred forty-eight words to be exact. But on that day, in that moment, it was precisely what Mike Schultz needed to give him hope.
Before that day, the 31-year-old Schultz had never met Jim Wazny. Had never even heard of him. But the two shared something in common that few could ever understand.
In April 2000, Wazny lost most of his left leg after a motocross accident. Eight years later, the same thing happened to Schultz in a gruesome SnoCross accident.
When he heard of Schultz's ordeal, Wazny sat down at his computer, logged onto Schultz's CaringBridge Web page and typed a message in the guestbook. He said he understood what Schultz was going through. He knew that no words could take away the pain, but he wanted him to know that, in time, things would get better. With the help of family, friends and prosthetic technology, Schultz could walk, run and, if he wanted to, race SnoCross again. At the end of the message, Wazny left his phone number.
"Please give me a call if I can ever help in any way," he wrote.
As the field of snowmobiles raced past and Sara Schultz didn't see her husband's No. 5 Ski-Doo, she knew something was wrong. Mike Schultz had grown up racing everything from BMX bikes to snowmobiles and had never been seriously injured. Sure, there had been a few bumps, bruises and breaks -- including a fractured clavicle five days before their wedding -- but it was never serious. Never was his life in danger.
But for some reason, this felt different. Sara knew her husband hadn't been entirely comfortable racing that December day in 2008. The course in the Upper Peninsula town of Ironwood, Mich., included a series of steep downhill runs. Schultz and his crew had struggled at practice to set the sled to his liking. Race day brought overcast skies. It wasn't easy to see, but Schultz had always been a fierce competitor. And that day was no different. He straddled his sled and tried to make something happen.
In the final lap of his qualifying run, Schultz fell to sixth place. He needed to make a move. Coming down one of the hills, he pushed the throttle harder than he had done before. His sled hit a bump and began to slide out from underneath him. He couldn't save the sled, so he tried to save himself. He planted his left leg into the ground to brace himself for the fall.
"And then it was just, 'Bam,'" he said, "like I had been shot."
The pain was instantaneously excruciating. His left leg had snapped in half and was hyperextended all the way back to his face. The front of his toe kicked him in the face.
"I freaked out," Schultz said. "I just grabbed it and pushed it away, like, 'This is not supposed to be here. Get out of here.'"
As he waited for help, Schultz rolled back and forth on the ground screaming as blood flowed everywhere. When the EMTs arrived, they zipped open Schultz's pant leg.
"I just remember the sound of blood going, 'Whooosh,'" he said. "I knew I was in bad shape right then and there."
From where she had been watching the race, Sara couldn't see any of this. She had no idea what happened other than her husband's sled had failed to reach the finish line. When the race ended, she ran onto the course in search of answers. A snowmobile picked her up. As soon as she came over a small hill, she saw it. Blood. Everywhere. The bright white snow around her husband had turned a horrific shade of red.
That's when she heard the screams. They gave her chills. When Sara arrived at her husband's side, his face was pale. A delivery room nurse back home in Minnesota, she knew he was going into shock. She grabbed his hand, looked him in the eyes and immediately went into nurse mode. She told him to breathe. Relax. She insisted that everything was going to be fine.
Three days later, as she stood next to her husband's hospital bed, Sara had a simple request. She asked him to look at his left leg, try to move it and describe what it felt like.
Even getting to this point had been a nightmare.
The hospital where they had been taken was less than a mile from the track. Schultz remembers there wasn't a trauma center. Or an orthopedic surgeon. According to Sara, there was just one nurse and one doctor working in a two-room ER.
He would need to be airlifted to a trauma center in Duluth, Minn., more than 100 miles and two states away. But in the minutes since the race had ended, a snowstorm settled in and the helicopters were grounded. An ambulance would be the only way to Minnesota.
As Schultz lay in the back of the ambulance unable to take pain medication because of the excessive bleeding, he thought about soldiers in the Middle East. He convinced himself that they were often hurt worse than this and they came out OK. So he, too, would be fine.
"That's all I could think of," he said.
Covered in blood, Sara had argued her way into the front seat of the ambulance. She continued to breathe with her husband, hoping to keep him from losing consciousness.
"I was never worried about him losing a leg," she said. "I was worried about him surviving."
When the ambulance pulled up to the hospital in Duluth some 2½ hours after it left Ironwood, more than a dozen doctors were waiting. Schultz was yellow, pale and swollen. Almost immediately, he went into surgery -- 5½ hours after the accident had occurred.
"They're going to bolt your leg back together," Sara told her husband before she said goodbye. "You'll be fine."
Five hours later, around midnight, Schultz emerged from the operating room sedated and on life support. A breathing tube helped keep him alive. Other tubes, Sara said, seemed to come in and out of everywhere.
The next day there would be another surgery in hopes of stabilizing Schultz, but it barely helped. Instead, his kidneys were starting to fail. His blood pressure was 200/100. Doctors confessed to Sara that the best and perhaps only path to recovery was to amputate his left leg.
She insisted that her husband would have to make that decision for himself, so doctors woke Schultz up. That's when Sara grabbed his hand and asked him to try and move his leg. For about a minute, Schultz tried to move his left leg. He tried to wiggle his toes. At one point, his brain told him his toes were moving. But they weren't.
"I guess it feels numb," he told Sara.
"That's when I knew," she said.
About an hour later, doctors called Schultz's family into his room. They explained that the accident had severed the main nerve in his lower leg. There were circulation problems. Tissue in his leg was already dying. His kidneys were becoming poisoned. There were concerns that Schultz could suffer a stroke. Even if they could save his leg, doctors said, it would never be close to the way it once was.
"They wanted me to make the decision," Schultz said, "but the decision had already been made."
After listening to the doctors, Schultz looked at Sara and told her what he thought.
"I don't want to waste time carrying around a junk limb," he said.
Three hours later, doctors rolled Schultz into the operating room, where they would remove his left leg above the knee.
When Schultz woke up in recovery, the pain was worse than even the accident had been. The nerves had been severed, and the brain couldn't make sense of what had happened. Doctors tried all sorts of medication. Nothing seemed to work.
"There were times I wasn't sure I was going to make it through the next hour," he said.
"For me to see him in so much pain and missing his leg it was one of the longest nights of our lives," Sara said. "And there was nothing we could do to make it better. That's my job. To make my patients comfortable. And when I couldn't make him feel better, it was so hard."
Before the surgery, Schultz had told his wife that he was worried he might freak out the first time he looked down and saw he didn't have a left leg. The two of them agreed to keep everything covered until he was ready. They would look together.
When the moment to face reality finally came, Schultz pulled back the covers. What was left of his leg was covered in bandages. He tried to lift his femur off the bed.
"It was the weirdest feeling ever," he said. "There was just no weight there."
Thirteen days after the accident, Schultz headed home. He figured his days as a competitive racer were over.
But then he came across Jim Wazny's note on CaringBridge, a website that connects patients, friends and families experiencing serious medical conditions. And everything changed. Suddenly there was hope -- an adaptive series, where someone in a situation just like Schultz's was already competing.
A few weeks after returning home and gaining some strength, Schultz picked up the phone and called Wazny.
"I remember he was so unsure," Wazny said. "He didn't know if he could ride again. He didn't know if he could walk again. It brought me back to what I went through. And I just told him I had been through it, and he could do whatever he wanted."
Wazny told Schultz that there were adaptive races in Michigan. He mentioned the Summer X Games had Adaptive Motocross. Schultz hung up the phone, did a bit more research and realized: "This was exactly what I wanted to do."
After a few weeks, even before he had his prosthetic leg, Schultz was back on a sled.
"I just wanted to get out of the house so bad," he said. "And snowmobiles, dirt bikes -- that's my life. That's what makes me tick."
Said Sara: "When he first got back on, the smile on his face it made it all worthwhile to me. Just to see that pure joy gave me so much peace. I knew he was going to be OK."
That March, three months after his accident, with his regular walking prosthetic, Mike entered an end-of-season race typically reserved for mechanics and older racers. With his prosthetic flopping at his side, he won.
He knew, if he wanted to be consistently competitive, he would need a specially designed prosthetic to handle the rigors of competitive racing.
So he went to the drawing board.
Schultz had grown up on a farm in Minnesota as a boy who loved to take things apart and put them back together. He constantly wondered: How does this work? His father had taught him to weld at age 10. As an adult, he had built an airboat with a snowmobile engine-powered propeller. He made his own snowmaking machine, three-wheeler, Jet Ski and dirt bike.
Now he wanted to build his own prosthetic knee. In SnoCross, there were jumps sometimes as high as 100 feet in the air. He needed a prosthetic that could absorb that degree of abuse while still being flexible enough to allow him to stand up and sit down whenever necessary. And it needed to feel as similar to his healthy leg as possible.
Schultz began to draw what he thought the leg should look like. Every day for a month, he drew and drew and drew. And then erased, erased and erased. When he finished a design he was happy with, he used cardboard cutouts to ensure all the moving pieces would glide together. At the core of his design would be a mountain bike shock in which the pressure could be adjusted.
"I knew I needed that spring to work the quadriceps," he said.
When he finally had a design he thought would work, Schultz reached out to his friends at Fox Racing, one of his sponsors. It agreed to let him use its machinery in its research and design laboratory to build his knee. After a week of eight-hour days, the Moto Knee was ready.
Schultz slipped it on, climbed aboard a dirt bike and went for a ride on Fox's practice track.
"Within about a minute, I knew I had something," he said. "I could stand up, balance side-to-side, and it was a predictable, consistent feel. It was awesome. And just like that, a whole new door had opened up."
Later that summer, wearing his new creation, Schultz competed in the Adaptive Motocross race at the 2009 Summer X Games. He won a silver medal. The following winter in Aspen, he won X Games gold in the Adaptive SnoCross race, a feat he would repeat in 2011.
With Schultz's success came more and more questions about the MotoKnee. He proudly showed it to anyone who asked. Demand was so high that in 2010 he began his own company, BioDapt. He now creates prosthetic legs for such activities as snowboarding, snowmobiling, wakeboarding and mountain biking. He has built and sold more than 70 of the $6,000 knees, more than half of which he says have been purchased by Walter Reed Medical Center and given to veterans returning from injuries in combat.
SnoCross was not part of the 2012 Winter X Games program, but this year the race is back. And so is Schultz. On Friday in Aspen, Schultz hosted a group of 12 veterans, all of whom had been injured within the past six months. He travels the world sharing his story of inspiration.
"There's just so much satisfaction being able to help different people realize that an injury like this isn't the end," Schultz said. "I don't believe things happen for a reason. I believe life is presented to you, and you can react to it one way or another. You can take a left turn and go down the wrong path or take a right turn and make the best of it. You have to make things happen. You have to make your own luck. And that's what I try to tell people."
On a frigid Friday night in November 2011, the ISOC snowmobile series returned to Ironwood. Mike and Sara Schultz watched the preliminary races from their home. In the race two weeks earlier, competing against able-bodied riders in the Pro Am Plus 30 division, Schultz had finished third. But they had decided to avoid a return to Ironwood.
"I told him we were not going back there," Sara said. "Not to that place again. What if something happens? What if we're in that same situation again? No way."
But as Schultz watched the runs that night, he was drawn to the unique setup of the course. He started to get that itch.
"It was the coolest course I had seen in a long time," he said. "I was like, 'We should go. We should go.'"
Eventually, he talked Sara into it. Before long, the sled was loaded and the couple was on its way back to the Upper Peninsula.
"But only after I checked the weather," Sara said. "And it was going to be clear. Very clear."
Schultz finished second in the race. All of the sudden, he found himself second in points for the championship.
"So it was like, 'Well, I guess we might as well keep going for the rest of the season,'" he said.
In each race, Schultz competed against able-bodied riders. And in each race except one, he would stand on the podium as a top-3 finisher. Schultz finished sixth in the final race of the season. It gave him three more points than any other rider and the series championship.
"It was such a high point for us," Sara said. "We had the sport taken away from us. That was the lowest point. But then he was able to win a championship, on our terms."
At the season-ending banquet, Schultz announced his retirement from the tour.
"It was emotional," he said. "I got all choked up. It was heart-wrenching to say 'I'm done,' but I went out on top."
"We still have the X Games," Sara added, "and I'd like to see the three-peat this weekend."
When Schultz climbs aboard his No. 5 sled in the Adaptive SnoCross final Sunday afternoon, he will do so with his sights set on a third straight X Games gold in the event. But there is one man in particular he worries could stand in his way of history: Jim Wazny.
In the years since that initial phone conversation, the two have become close friends. Two years ago, Schultz insisted that Wazny give the MotoKnee a try. He hesitated.
"I was 39 years old. I told him, 'Old dog, new tricks,'" Wazny said. "I've had the same leg for 11 years. It works fine for me."
Schultz refused to give up. He knew his creation could help his friend.
"I guess our roles reserved," Wazny said. "And he became the persistent one."
In the spring of 2011, Wazny again slipped himself into the MotoKnee during a motocross practice.
This time, it felt more natural.
"From watching on the side, you could just tell how much more comfortable he was," Schultz said.
After a few practice laps, Schultz suggested that Wazny go back to his older leg to compare. He didn't get more than a half lap before stopping.
"He was right," Wazny said. "It made me faster. It made me more competitive. I just wish he wouldn't have let me say no the first time."
On Sunday afternoon in Aspen, the two men connected by their individual tragedies will go head-to-head, both of them wearing a prosthetic leg that Schultz drew up on a piece of paper.
"I want to beat him," Wazny said. "That's just the way it is."
"I hope he's up on that podium with me," Schultz said, "holding his silver medal."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.