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Excerpt – Global Nomad
Waking to a New Reality
In my nightmare I saw a cloudy blue light vaguely illuminating a pale green room. It was the same dull putrid green of the high- rise apartment buildings I’d once seen in East Berlin. In the dream, I was strapped down, resigned to live in this hell forever.
When I awoke, I was in a hospital room cemented in by nothing. For the next three months, I had nightmares every night, followed by a worse reality when I woke. The pain overwhelmed the army of endorphins recruited to soothe my brain. I’d been through some pressure cookers before, but this one wasn’t a crack from a diving board or a fastball crushed into my temple. This wasn’t the smash of a windshield against my back or the scrape of pavement ripping open my knee.
Since birth, my skull had been commissioned to hold my conscience in place. But for the first time, I asked my skull to take a rest and let my conscience float out of my body. I could see my time here was over. There was no coming back from this. No cast or ace bandage was going to heal this. I was begging the powers that be to let me check out. But the docs were doing too good a job on me. I could have fought for death, but I didn’t have the guts. I complacently let my soul back into my body. As much as I wanted to end it, I didn’t even have the power to off myself.
Before the nightmares, I had lived in Dubai, Holland, Taiwan and Les Avenieres in the French Alps. I’d performed nine- story high dives into 10 feet of water to audiences all over the world. I’d competed in the famous Acapulco cliff diving championships. And just three weeks earlier I had been diving off cliffs in Hawaii with my brother. But everything about my old life changed that sunny Sunday morning in September of 1996. While the rest of the world kept spinning, I lay broken on a Portland, Oregon, intersection near my bicycle and the 24-foot delivery truck I’d just hit.
The scene around me was chaotic that day as some people tried to move me and others pulled them off. People asked me questions, but I couldn’t respond. I hadn’t passed out, and I wasn’t feeling much pain either. I was simply watching the first 35 years of my life vanish with every passing second.
But my legs were toast.
I reached down and touched my right thigh to see if I could feel it. I could feel it but the sensation was odd. Only when I tried to unclip my cleats did I notice something was wrong. There was no response. I reached down again for my thigh and realized my fingers were feeling skin, but my leg wasn’t feeling anything back. I slowly dragged my fingers up my body until I got a response—just above my waist. I was in for something bigger than I’d ever imagined. I looked down at my fingers and started playing guitar scales. They worked fine. I was still a musician but not much else. I’d become a crip.
I’ve always been a competitor but surviving and recovering from a spinal cord injury is an ugly and complicated game that nobody wants or deserves to play. The object is to get back everything you’ve just lost – and you will not win this game. It’s you versus your new body. Your new body makes and changes the rules without notice. There are no timeouts. You always play in pain. You can no longer urinate or defecate by yourself, yet the new body has the option of discharging anything at any time. You no longer have a car, and you can’t get into your house (or anyone else’s for that matter). You are instantly out of work and out of money. There is very little reason to carry on.
Let’s Go to the Pool!
It’s absurd to say I grew up in a rough neighborhood in an idyllic North Shore suburb of Milwaukee, but it’s true. Ever since the first day my mom let me out of the door to play with the neighborhood kids, odds were that we were going to get in trouble. Lots of it.
Our neighborhood barely existed when we moved in, just a reclaimed wetland ten miles north of downtown Milwaukee. In 1966 my father was the first to buy property in the Lower Clovernook section of Glendale. Every year the 40-acre open field we grew up next to was taken over by more and more new houses. Not knowing the intricacies of the real-estate market or anything about property values, we assumed the field was ours and anyone taking any part of it was our enemy. Our Schwinn banana-seat cavalry attacked with a vengeance, destroying dozens of half- built homes and smashing the windows of those just getting ready to show. We didn’t see ourselves as vandals. We thought we were protecting what was ours.
Football was our passion, second only to our adventurous forays into the developing suburb of Glendale. The southern border of Lower Clovernook was a raised railroad track that served as our link to the outside world. Our rock-war enemies lived on Bender Road, south of the tracks. As we ventured west, we came across a long bridge that spanned the Milwaukee River to Kletzsch Park. One of the rights of passage into our gang was to climb a 50-foot steel trestle that led to a clubhouse on a cement pillar above one of the last chunks of farmland left in Milwaukee County. The penalty for slipping was a nice 50-foot drop onto a concrete slab. Once onto the trestle you walked along four-inch girders under the tracks until you came to our clubhouse on the pillar. The older guys, including my brother Dan, could hold onto the girder over their heads. The little guys had to balance on the lower girder and pray they didn’t slip. But getting to the club house was just the start. In order to be a member of “Bridge Club” you had to wait for an oncoming train, climb up to the tracks and moon the conductor while the gazillion ton locomotive sped by inches from your ass.
Whether it be football or adventures, we arrived home filthy. Instead of making us take baths, my mom would give us a quarter and send us up to the Nicolet High School swimming pool for free swim. It was tricky for us, as we had to dodge the few adequate enemies we had in the wimpy gentrified neighborhood of Upper Clovernook. It was best we got to the pool unnoticed so we could lock our stingray bikes without them interfering. Once at the pool we again asserted our dominance by taking over the diving board at the deep end. While the dweebs from the established neighborhoods of Glendale did little hops and nose- plugged jumps, we assaulted the plank with a vengeance. Having felt a train rumble by inches from your butt, how afraid could we be of a front flip? We leapt high into the air to catch nerf-ball passes thrown by the lifeguards and tried just about anything they asked us. I can’t really put a finger on when, but eventually it became clear that the lessons learned from Bridge Club matched up much better with the diving board than the football field.
When I was older and experienced, I would feel, deep in my soul, that I was a diver. I liked to jump; I loved the sensation of spinning and, more than anything else; I loved the way water could fool gravity. Eventually I could drop nine stories, and if I kept tight and lined myself up, I could land without feeling a thing. I could go in forward, backward, on my head or on my feet. I had the sensation that I was fooling Isaac Newton.
In high school, the main event, and the one that brought the senior cheerleaders over from the varsity basketball games, was the one-meter diving. In 1975 the swimmers at Nicolet High School were overshadowed by a pair of divers who were ranked first and second in the state. Mark Rosandich was a good spinner and had cat-like quickness, but Keith Potter had all the school records and the flair of a champion.
When he stepped up to the board the crowd turned dead silent. All eyes were on the sandy-haired Potter as he approached the end of the board and snapped his iron-tight physique into a high graceful hurdle. His big trick was the front 1 ½ with 2 twists. With a 2.7 degree of difficulty, it was the toughest dive in the state, and he knew how to put that thing in the water. He soared in the air, spun into his twists, and then neatly squared out just above the board. He dropped in vertically and the crowd’s silence would morph into manic caterwauling that wouldn’t stop until the referee blew his whistle like a judge ordering silence in the courtroom. Potter would climb out of the pool, smile at his coach, Don Osborne, and then calmly return to his seat with another victory.
The State Meet that year was held at the Natatorium on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, about 90 minutes away. I wasn’t allowed to go as I was only in seventh grade, but the final was televised on a local station.
Potter’s first dive was a front dive with a half-twist. He confidently took it up in the air, pointed down towards the water then gently made the half turn and sliced the water.
Next up was his front 2-½ tuck. It wasn’t the most difficult dive in his list, but it was one he knew he could hit. He stood it up, spun like a top and kicked out vertically again collecting 7’s and 8’s. I shot off the couch and screamed with my two little brothers. Of my seven siblings, four were at the meet and the three youngest were at home watching it on TV. We were a Nicolet swimming family and watching one of our guys go for the gold medal in Madison was as big as life got. Finally, it was time for the big double twister. Up in the air he went spinning as tight as a pencil. He squared out, looked at the water and disappeared without a trace. The three of us burst off the couch and shook our fists. He’d done it. He capped off an unbeaten season with a State Championship and an All-American qualifying score.
Along with my dreams of playing for the Brewers at County Stadium, the Bucks at the MECCA, the Packers at Lambeau Field, and winning the Olympic Marathon (I wanted to be Frank Shorter for a while too) I wanted to win that damn meet in Madison. Whereas the other sports dreams were the same dreams that every kid in my school had, diving seemed to be particularly suited to me. Diving was an adventure into the unknown and untested. Ever since I took my first hike along the railroad tracks, that’s what I was all about. Every day I had to go a little further—see a little more, climb another tree, scale a different building. Diving was the same thing. Every day I wanted to add another flip, do a different position or try a trick on a higher board or platform. There was always something out there I hadn’t done. As much as I loved the other sports, none of them had that adventurous appeal. When the team came back from Madison, I got to know coach Osborne and started diving with them.
Two years later I was enrolled at Nicolet High School. I barely said a word to anyone for three months. But in November, I strapped on my tight black Mike Pepe diving suit and went to my first practice for the Nicolet Knights. Potter was long gone diving in the Big 10 at the University of Illinois, but Nicolet still had two state contenders.
It was a painful year as I was pushed to take my single somersault dives and add another half-flip so I would go in headfirst. If we’d been born 20 years later, we would have been skateboarders or snowboarders. But in the cold, flat, nerdy Midwest we became springboard divers.
My first year was going well but I needed help and decided it was time to contact the great Hobie Billingsley at the University of Indiana whose divers had won the Olympics and swept the NCAA meet time after time.
I asked my guidance counselor if she could help me find the address, and sure enough, she came up with the information for Hobie’s Heroes diving camp in Bloomington, Indiana. (Googling was still 25 years in the future) That summer my parents drove me to Bloomington, Indiana. Those first two weeks were terrifying.
When I showed up at the pool at 7:00 a.m. a semi-bald, mustachioed man with thick glasses walked on to the deck and spoke to the group of college divers who were camp counselors. I thought he was one of the Indiana janitors talking about turning off the lights, but he turned out to be Hobie Billingsley. As unassuming as his exterior was, his interior was just as focused and unwavering. Hobie wasn’t interested in developing good one-meter springboard divers. He wanted to develop three-meter springboard and ten-meter tower champions. He had a bunch of elementary school kids who had already learned college-level three-meter dives. These dives were some of the scariest ones to learn. This is when most divers quit the sport. At that point I was afraid to bounce on the three-meter board, let along do simple required dives. But Hobie didn’t push divers like a drill sergeant. He just showed you the proper mechanics, taught you the tricks on a trampoline then said you were ready to do the trick. If you didn’t do the tricks—he sent you home.
It was that simple. He was there to train divers, not baby- sit rich kids on vacation. You did your tricks, or he asked you to call your parents and have them pick you up. No malice or pressure was involved. If you weren’t into it by yourself, for yourself, well this just wasn’t the place for you. There were plenty of other camps in the country but in order to put on this camp’s T- shirt, you had to toss some tricks.
Hobie was at poolside every morning to give us a pep talk and make sure we were ready to toss those big tricks. Every night he either gave us a physics lecture or showed us movies of past Olympians, all of whom were his closest friends. I’d never been in the company of such greatness.
The more time I spent with Hobie, the more I knew I was a diver. I should be getting crushed doing these tricks, but instead I was emerging from a cool inviting element to the amazement of most of the people around me. The other sports dreams I had before meeting Hobie Billingsley disappeared. All I wanted to do was dive—and win that damn State meet.
I returned from Hobie’s Heroes a changed person. I wasn’t going to just win the State meet—I wanted to crush it. I wanted every record in the book. The school record, all the pool records, the Conference record—even the State record.
I started off my senior season by breaking Keith Potter’s school record for six dives on my second dual meet. By the time the big meets came around in January, I’d set the pool record at every pool. That streak came to a halt when I cracked my head on the board doing a reverse 2 ½ in the warm-ups of a dual meet. It was the same kind of dive that Greg Louganis did when he cracked his head during the Seoul Olympics. I still won the meet but I can’t remember a thing from it. Practice the next two weeks was brutal, not from the concussion, but from a dislocated jaw and a couple of bruised ribs that came from crashing my head into my chest.
By the time the State sectional meet came along, I’d almost made good on my promise to rewrite the record books. I’d broken all but a couple of pool records with the most gut-wrenching exception being the Nicolet 11-dive pool record. I had my worst meet of the year during my home invitational and Keith Potter kept his name on the record board. I was furious with myself after the meet, but when I went to practice the next Monday and saw his name still on the pool record board, it brought a smile to my face. Any self-esteem I had came from his example. It was best that his name still hung around that pool. Everything came together during the sectional meet though, and I cracked the magical 500-point mark which had only been done a few times in the history of the State.
The state championship meet started early on Saturday morning with only a few parents and coaches in the stands. I started out hot and nailed my first five dives opening a commanding lead. As we got to the semi-final round I missed the finish on my inward 1 ½, but put the two required dives away for 8’s. I’d saved my three highest scoring dives for the finals. It was pretty much in the bag, but I still had to dive out the set.
It was then that I started to do what no athlete should ever do. I stopped thinking of diving and started to think of the State record. It was in reach if I zipped my last three dives. “I’m really going to have to go for it on these hurdles If I’m going to get the son of a bitch!” I thought. One of Hobie’s rules is to dive practice like it’s a meet and dive the meet like it’s practice. In other words, make each dive count in workout—and dive normally in the meet. I was going for big dives, and it almost cost me.
My first dive was the front dive with a half-twist. Ever since Potter used that dive in the finals, every Nicolet diver used it in the final. It was my highest scoring required dive, and I’d collected 9’s on it a couple of times during the season. I went for a big hurdle but didn’t get my arms above my head on take-off. I was late initiating the dive and had to pull like hell just to get vertical. Some of the less experienced judges still gave me 7’s but I also collected some 5 ½’s—not what the guy leading the State meet is supposed to do.
My next dive was a front 2-½ pike. I usually didn’t do this one very well in practice, but it always seemed to come around in meets. I went for another big dive but I got stuck in the spin. Luckily I’d been in this position hundreds of times before. I just squished my face between my knees and stayed in the pike as long as I could. I sprung open just before the water and managed to get my hands together and stretch my legs high into the air. Two dives—two horrible take-offs. At least I got 7s on the front 2 ½.
Now I had the damn thing won. I would have to land flat on my butt on my best dive and that wasn’t going to happen. I’d learned my lesson on going for the big hurdle. I had a reverse 1-½ with 1-½ twists left. I’d nailed it for 8s in the sectional meet and hadn’t missed it all week long. All I had to do was go for a normal hurdle and I was going to walk away with everything. I relaxed before my approach, went for a normal hurdle then rode the board high into the air. It ended up being the best hurdle of the day. I tossed my arms above my head, began twisting, and the toughest dive in my list was floating through the air as if I were on a pulley. I squared out of the twist and looked at the board only to discover I’d never gotten that good of a top on a reverse twister in my life. I was done with the dive with two meters to fall. I wasn’t going to blow it, but I was going to have to put on the brakes and go for a big underwater save.
While I was underwater, I could hear the roar of the crowd. I’d actually missed the dive—just not that badly. I needed to nail that last trick to get to 500 points, but I didn’t. Nonetheless—I was the Wisconsin State Champion. I came out of the water to a deafening scream. I looked up at my family in the stands and over at Coach Osborne. Osborne was next to run over, and we hugged each other and the tears started to flow. The next thing I knew there was a TV camera on us and a couple of reporters asking questions. I felt like I’d just won the Olympics. A few minutes later they announced the results and presented the medals at the awards podium. Before the meet Osborne had been selected to hand out the diving awards. He didn’t want to tell me because he thought it might put extra pressure on me. I climbed the podium, he put the medal around my neck and I said, “This could have really backfired on you!”
“Not a chance,” he said. “You weren’t gonna lose this thing.”
I looked into the stands and the entire Nicolet contingent were waving old political yard signs from my dad’s school board campaign: “Haig for Nicolet Board.”
I walked to the stands but was mobbed before I could get there. Nearly everyone I knew was in Madison forming a circle around me in a big group hug. I was so overwhelmed I almost passed out. It was the first time in my life I completed what I thought to be an impossible dream. It would not be the last.