For Jim Wazny, 2000 was supposed to be his year. He was a well-regarded motocross rider, competing in amateur circles in Michigan, and was prepared to move onto the professional level, depending on how he performed at the AMA Amateur National Championship in August of that year. All the pieces were in place â€“ an intense training regimen, the support of the â€œPolka Dotsâ€� (Waznyâ€™s motorcycle club) and a strong desire to become recognized on a larger scale. Everything was moving forward for Wazny, but in a split second, it would all be taken away.
On April 16, 2000, as Wazny and his group of fellow motocross riders were prepping a racetrack for an upcoming competition, he suffered a catastrophic injury. Wazny, 30 years old at the time, was taking one last practice lap on the freshly laid track when he went off a jump. What he didnâ€™t know was that a front end loader was positioned on the other side of the hill. Hanging mid-air, Wazny knew his life was either going to change drastically, or end.
â€œLong and short of it, there was a front end loader grooming a landing on a blind jump and I didnâ€™t know he was on the track. At the same time he didnâ€™t know I was on the track on my motorcycle and I basically landed in the bucket of the front end loader and it tore my left leg off on impact,â€� Wazny said.
His left leg was amputated above the knee and his left arm, which Wazny feared he might also lose, was saved, but put in a cast for 9 months. If the trauma of losing his leg and severely injuring his arm was not enough, Waznyâ€™s wife Stacie, was 8 months pregnant at the time. Somehow, she remained strong.
â€œThe support I had from my wife â€“ from her going through almost the loss of her husband to his leg being amputated, and then to take care of a newborn and a husband that didnâ€™t have a leg, and an arm in a cast for 9 months… She was a big inspiration in my life then and still is,â€� Wazny said.
Sitting at home with his newborn daughter, Wazny, who now works as a prosthetic technician for Wright & Filippis and lives in Merrill, Mich., knew he was going to be fighting an uphill battle. That first year was filled with frustrating adjustments and questions about the possibility of a return to any kind of athletic activity. Wazny admits he did not think he would ever get back on the bike.
But a year later he returned to the scene of his injury â€“ to prove to himself that his freak accident would not define him. He rode over the same course, albeit much slower this time. The years following his accident, Wazny said he rode rarely â€“ five to 10 times a year. Not being able to ride like he once did proved to be the most discouraging effect of his amputation. That all began to change as Wazny took up a new sport.
Getting back on the bike
He began riding snowcross (the equivalent to motocross on a snowmobile) in 2003 because it was easier for Wazny â€“ not to mention the added bonus of consistently positive results. The success he found with snowcross gave him the confidence to eventually return to riding his motorcycle. For roughly the past 2 years, Wazny has been on a mission to regain his past form. He will attempt to cap his comeback when he competes in motocross in July at the O&P Extremity Games by College Park in Orlando, Fla. At last yearâ€™s games, Wazny rode his bike as part of the motocross exhibition event.
â€œThe Extremity Games is not about whether you win or loseâ€¦ but itâ€™s just about being around other like minded amputees and just getting the positive vibe that is there, whether you are competing or not,â€� he said. â€œI talked to so many people last year who would go again as a spectator just to get to see everyone with a desire to show other people that there are no limits on anything you can do because you are what some other person may categorize as being disabled.â€�
Wazny said that he thinks his story can be particularly motivating for spectators and fellow competitors alike. Unlike many other disabled athletes who gladly skip over the part of their own recovery that centers around incredible self-doubt and depression, Wazny uses this time in his life as a lesson for others.
Learning to try
“I would like for people to think that before you say you can’t do anything, try it. And try it again if it is something you really want, because you will find a way to do it. … Something I am really into is my stand-up, freestyle jet ski. I was into that before [my accident] and when I was in the hospital thinking about how I was going to get money to pay all these bills, the first thing I had up for sale was my jet ski,” Wazny said. “It didn’t sell right away and then I was trying to lower the price down and one of my friends said ‘well why don’t you try to ride it?’ And I said ‘I don’t have a leg how am I going to ride a stand-up jet ski?’ They talked me into it and I basically had the attitude of ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do this.’ But within 3 weeks, I was better on it with my prosthetic leg than with my own two legs and it just opened my eyes.”
Wazny now cannot imagine what his life would be like if he had not tried to get back on his jet ski, or bike, or snowmobile. He currently helps younger amputees come to their own realizations, and overcome any self-doubt that they may be harboring, with a group called AmpuTeam, a program funded by Wright & Filippis.
“I get such reward out of teaching someone to run for the first time or if someone is walking in with two canes with an above-knee amputation, to get their goal to lose one cane or both and then just see the joy on their face. What I find so much happiness in is helping people achieve their goals.”
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Andrew Kelly is the assistant editor of O&P Business News.