When teenager Brent Poppen was play wrestling with a another teenager at a camp located at Lake Hume in California’s Fresno mountains, it was a day he will never forget. It was the last day he ever put his foot down, stood upright, and walked. The two teens were not even friends, and there was no blame in the incident. It could have gone the other way. But it was athletic Brent who never got up again. His neck was broken at the sixth cervical vertebra.
The year was 1990 without the current medical advances we’ve reached today. To complicate matters, the setting on the mountain was remote and there had just been a heavy snowfall. The ambulance took a long while to get there and then had to travel over treacherous roads to to take Brent Poppin to the closest hospital which was not equipped to handle such a severe injury. The first hours of an injury can make all the difference in the world if immediate medical attention is given. But it was 1990 and with the complications of the setting, Brent’s fate was sealed. Nevertheless, though he thought he was going to die, he did feel peace and there was no pain. Brent was paralyzed. He couldn’t move any part of his body from his neck down. Of the incident, Brent says, in his autobiography, Tragedy on the Mountain, “It felt like I was in a fetal position with my knees to my chest.” Brent was not curled up in a fetal position, but he had no way of knowing where his arms and legs were.
Upon receiving the news that their son had suffered a spinal chord injury and would never walk again, Brent’s parents arrived as soon as they could which was a day later. They had Brent airlifted to a hospital near where they lived, and the doctors there immediately performed surgery to stabilize his neck and strengthen the injured area. Brent stayed in the hospital as a patient for three months. He received immeasurable support and help from the staff, his parents, and friends who visited. However, after the doctors told him the truth of what had happened and he began to realize the state he was in, the overriding nightmare thoughts came to this talented athlete who, prior to his injury, was a fury of mobility and a sports fanatic. He would never walk, let alone run again. He was a quadriplegic, and it was unclear how much he would be able to recover any of his shoulder or arm strength. Furthermore, all feeling in his hands was gone; his hands were paralyzed along with his legs.
Brent Poppin’s incident happened almost twenty-four years ago. How he developed from this state of paralysis to becoming a world class athlete competing in the Paralympics in Wheelchair Rugby and Wheelchair Tennis is nothing short of truly miraculous. In his inspiring autobiography, Brent discusses his mental state and determination which were crucial. This along with his emotional control helped him face the reality of his condition then worked to make the best of it. With the support of his parents and friends, his natural athleticism kicked in. He developed a work ethic that allowed him to recover his upper body strength and his triceps and biceps. In stages he began to redirect himself to continue plans to go to college and eventually determine whether he would strive toward world class athleticism.
In Tragedy on the Mountain Brent Poppin reveals all aspects of his life before the accident and after. These are necessary revelations for the reader because they clearly show how he was able to survive and thrive because as he states, “Positive influences are very important early on.” He discusses his workout routines and his health regime which is important to maintaining his world class athletic status. This situation didn’t always pertain. After the accident, before Brent Poppin determined his focus to get into shape, he had gained a lot of weight because he was largely inactive. Only after realizing who he was and what he wanted to be capable of, did he take the steps to get there.
Poppin makes it very clear in the book that none of this was easy. But in achieving the near impossible, he provides the inspiration and motivation for all of us not to settle. This uplifting book shows that it is better to face the difficulties, whatever they may be, and make the decision to define ourselves and not allow the circumstances to define or limit us. He discusses how he carved out his own life path and didn’t let what appeared to be impossible trick him to believing it was impossible. He proved the reality to be very different by first believing it would be different.
Poppin’s story is a quick and encouraging read. It is an important reminder that we can shape our own destinies. Though we may not have the desire to function on the level of world class athlete, regardless of our goals, we can determine how to get there and remain inspired. Poppin’s book is a pleasant guide in our journey for self-definition.