November 3, 2008
Ever heard of Nick Springer, who won an Olympic gold medal this year in Beijing? If the answer is no, you’re not alone. Unlike swimming champion Michael Phelps, Springer’s is not a household name. Maybe it should be, though. When you hear his story, I think you’ll see what I mean.
First of all, Nick Springer competed not in the Olympics that kept all of America enthralled this summer, but in the Paralympics, held in Beijing during the first two weeks of September. They failed to draw the crowds, the attention or the television coverage accorded the “regular” Olympics, but the competition was no less fierce and the medals just as prized. Springer, 23, was a defensive standout on the Paralympic rugby team that trounced Australia in the final match. How he got there, of course, is yet another tale.
Almost 10 years ago Nick Springer, then 14 and living a normal boyhood in suburban Croton, New York, contracted a rare and often fatal form of meningitis. Doctors decided that his only chance of survival required the amputation of both arms and both legs, and placed him an induced coma that would last two full months. In all, 19 surgeries were performed, and when Nick awoke he found himself with just a torso. But, against all odds, he was still alive.
From the beginning, the youngster’s outlook was positive. As he told Rick Carpiniello, a columnist for the Journal News of Westchester County, New York, “When somebody at first gets hurt, they usually dwell on the what-ifs. You can’t dwell on the what-ifs, because there are no what-ifs. It’s just what is, and you can’t change it.”
The boy had been a promising athlete, and yearned for competition again. Friends taped him up with a stick and soon he was playing sled hockey. And then, as he grew, it was on to wheelchair rugby, which gave him all the action he needed. “It’s like bumper cars, almost. We have specially made wheelchairs that are made for hitting.” Over the years he became a standout, and took time off from college to compete in the Paralympics. The rest is history…and yet there’s even more to the story.
Nick Springer’s mother, Nancy, who was such a help and inspiration to him—raising awareness about the boy’s rare disease, and practically willing him to be self-sufficient—was diagnosed with cancer this year. When her situation became life-threatening, he told her he’d skip the Beijing competition to stay by her side. “It would crush me if you don’t go to the Olympics,” she replied, and so he went, promising her a gold medal.
And, of course, he delivered. Thanks to a computer hookup friends relayed news of the game’s progress to Nancy in the hospital. She was in and out of consciousness, but those around her felt sure she knew what had happened. Knowing that her son’s team had won and were heading home, she died the next day.
“She waited for the gold-medal game,” Springer’s dad, Gary, told Sam Borden of the Journal News. “She wanted it so much for Nick. She wanted it more than anything for him.”
So there you have it, the story of Nick Springer. Not a household name, but now you have a better idea of why he should be. And he’s only 23. For the rest of the story, stay tuned.