It’s in those frantic ticking seconds of decision making that destiny is often perfectly sculpted.
On March 5, 2010, the great debate was on with respect to Grant Korgan’s broken back. Do his friends risk further damage trying to get him into a space blanket, or do they risk hypothermia by laying him in the snow until a helicopter arrives?
On a day that was stamped with snowmobile motors, and horrifying tense moments, the best plan was devised and action ensued. Hypothermia kicked in about two hours later.
Years later and far from experiencing death, Korgan, 38, has injected the warmth of vitality back into his system. In early August, he broke three world records when he set off in an outrigger canoe and paddled 72 miles around Lake Tahoe in 14 hours, and 15 minutes.
He set the record for the ‘fastest time for a spinal cord injured athlete to circumnavigate Lake Tahoe in a one-man outrigger canoe,’ the ‘fastest time to circumnavigate Lake Tahoe in a one-man outrigger canoe,’ and the ‘fastest time to circumnavigate Lake Tahoe with human power.’ He also raised $25,000 for High Fives Foundation, which helps people navigate the world of spinal cord injuries.
“It was just the power of positivity at work,” Korgan simply said.
A loop around the giant emerald lake was almost symbolic of the full circle his adventure-packed and love-filled life has taken.
The “Force of Love”
A Lake Tahoe native, Korgan was working as a scientist and mechanical engineer, taking on chunks of focused work at certain times so that he was free to be a professional athlete in both whitewater kayaking and snowmobiling.
Going to college in Gunnison, Colorado, then living in Crested Butte before traveling Europe extensively and going on a month-long kayak trip to South America, Korgan was drawn back to the Tahoe area both to finish his degree, and to have numerous outdoor opportunities at his fingertips again.
Just a day after returning from Europe in 2007, Korgan was invited to a party, where he “locked eyes with this force of love and light from all the way across the room.”
A woman was leaning against the wall, and Korgan felt an instant connection.
“We had this ‘half-an-hour’ conversation with our eyes, which in truth probably lasted two seconds,” Korgan said of his now wife, Shawna.
“From the second that I saw Grant, from the moment we locked eyes, it was an exhale; an exhale of ‘Oh, there you are,'” Shawna said. “We had a lifetime of conversation in what was probably three seconds. I knew that he was who I was meant to walk this life with.”
Grant knew it, too. In fact, he was so confident in their future that he didn’t even bother to get her number that night. What he didn’t know is to what extent his path with Shawna would cross beyond their wedding day.
Just Beyond the ‘Safe’ Zone
On that fateful March day in 2010, Grant and three experienced friends set off to film a snowmobile movie on Sonora Pass, the second- highest highway pass in the Sierra Nevada range. It’s prime territory for backcountry filming because one can build huge jumps, and let them cure through the weeks as snow fills in. A group might be working on different jumps or different lines for an entire season until conditions are just right and the cameras are brought out.
Grant and his friends had been working on their “movie line” for months. It was a series of three jumps with the first being a 120-foot air over a rock outcropping.
“There’s a chance I may have even pre-broken my back off of the first jump,” Grant said.
Not in enough pain to call it a day, Grant continued riding. On their way to the third jump, he spotted a project he had been eyeing for over four years. It was a technical jump made by a snowboard company that was never quite right for a snowmobile.
“I said to the guys, ‘Hey, this is the best that it has ever looked. It’s perfect. I’m gonna do it,'” Grant said.
By the time they got the cameras into position, the clouds had blown in. One of Grant’s friends told him to wait so that they would have the best light.
“I remember saying, ‘This one isn’t for the camera. This one is for me,'” Grant said.
At the top of the jump, he shut off his engine.
“I sat there and asked myself out loud, ‘Why are you doing this? Tell me the reason? Does it feel right? Is everything the way you want it? Are you comfortable?’ I asked myself all the questions to make sure I was in the right space to do exactly what I wanted to be doing. This was a dream for me. It was perfect.”
Grant ignited the engine again and everything felt great on the in-run. Once he came to a tree marking the speed check, he thought he was going a bit too slow, so he gave it a little extra gas.
“I mean, I may have added a quarter of a mile an hour,” Grant said.
Grant left the top of the jump and immediately knew he was going to overshoot the safe zone.
“I had all this time in the air to think, okay, you know what? I’m going to break my leg. I knew I was breaking bones. It was just a matter of which bones do I break,” Grant said. “I remember having the wherewithal to say, I’m going to lean off to the left because I don’t want to break my back, so I’m going to sit off to the side and I will break my left leg. That will be the least of all evils. I even had the thought to take my right foot out of the foot cup so I didn’t break my right femur across my seat, because with a femur break in the back country, you can die from blood poisoning in hours.”
When Grant hit the flat area, it was like someone flipped a switch in his spine to the ‘off’ position. He didn’t crash, but his machine hit the ground with such force that he suffered a burst fracture at L-1.
Up and Out
One friend acted as a human backboard to get Grant safely off the sled. Then the decision was made. They placed him on the snow rather than in a space blanket with the hopes that they could get a helicopter rescue quickly.
That’s when, Ken, the fastest rider of the group took off for help.
“Ken rode out to the military base, and was going 70 MPH down the airfield runway of the base,” Grant said. “He was eventually met by two white Expeditions. They pulled guns on him.”
Once Ken explained the situation, the Marines drove him to the fire station on the base, and got Care Flight on the radio.
“The Care Flight that was closet to us was on its final approach into south Tahoe, and because Ken had been so fast, and caught them within 30 seconds of when they were going to land, the pilot aborted the landing and headed straight to Sonora.”
During the entire helicopter ride, Grant was yelling to the nurse, “Call my wife! Call my wife!”
Shawna met him at the hospital and pushed her way through the emergency department to get to him.
“She grabs me by the face and says, ‘We’re gonna get through this. We’re gonna get through it together whether we’re walking or running, and don’t you change a single one of your goals,'” Grant said.
“Grant’s injury was simply a moment in time, and there was no way I was going to let something like a spinal cord injury alter or change the love I have for him,” Shawna added.
Surgeons took Grant’s L-1 vertebrae out and replaced it with a fake vertebrae, which is held together by two rods and many bolts. He spent nine days in ICU and 30 days in in-patient rehabilitation. Then it was many months at home in a hospital bed.
A new prognosis
Shawna Korgan received her BS in Health Ecology – Exercise Science, and has over two decades of experience in the fitness realm. With her vast knowledge, she had opened up her own 7,000-square foot facility that catered to wellness, so that women and men alike, could live their highest physical versions of themselves. After Grant’s injury, Shawna closed her business to focus solely on his recovery.
“When I stood in the ICU, I knew that this was the reason I had spent over 20 years in the fitness industry. There was not a question in my mind that I was doing exactly what I needed to be doing,” Shawna said. “It was imprinted on my heart that I would dedicate my life, my knowledge, and everything I am to Grant and our recovery.”
Grant’s prognosis was that he was never supposed to move anything against gravity below his bellybutton, but with her help and expertise, he now has feeling and movement all the way down to his knees.
“I went from wheelchair to walker to forearm crutches. Now I’m walking with a set of canes,” Grant said. “Just a week ago, I reached a milestone and figured out how to walk backwards with just one cane. Then it will be no canes and then we’ll be talking about doing triathlons.”
Shawna didn’t simply wave a magic wand over Grant’s body. For the last five years, the two have been in the gym working for up to 8 hours a day. Together, and with the help of a team of doctors, physical therapists, and other holistic practitioners, they’ve developed an activity-based recovery platform for spinal cord injuries.
“I have three very powerful principles that I speak on and that I live by: Decide what you want, focus on what is working, and choose positivity through adversity,” Korgan said. “In terms of deciding what you want, Shawna and I tell each other every day, ‘I want to spend every single day with you.’ Ironically, I asked that, and five months later, I had an injury where all of a sudden, Shawna and I were able to spend every single minute together.”
High Five for More Therapy
With so much going into his recovery and training, Grant “needed” a lofty goal to work toward, so he decided that he wanted to become the first person with a spinal cord injury to ski the final degree of latitude to the geographic South Pole in Antarctica.
Two years after his injury, and just barely able to move his legs, he endured icicles under the nose and 80 miles on a sit-ski to reach the southern most point on earth.
It was during preparation for the Arctic push that Grant and his team did a sub-expedition in their own backyard, just so they could get used to working together. They decided to kayak around Lake Tahoe in four days, doing a point-to-point route, which equaled about 60 miles on the water. That’s essentially where the circumnavigation idea was born.
The biggest challenge in Grant’s world record quest around Lake Tahoe didn’t come so much in the form of exhaustion or muscle fatigue. It came in the form of his back getting sore due to the hardware in it, and sitting up without a backrest for over 14 hours.
With two donated support boats, Shawna was in one of them with a clipboard documenting when the last time Grant hydrated, ate, and consumed sodium. She also read the very motivating stories about why people donated to the cause.
“The stories kept charging me through the night,” Grant said. “For me, one of the most powerful elements of the fundraising was to see fellow High Fives athletes, people who are currently recovering from spinal cord injuries, who you know are struggling financially just to pay for their own therapy — to see them make donations of $5, $10, $15, or even $100 dollars was stunning to me.”
Grant was the fifth athlete in the High Fives Foundation, and prior to his injury, he had the very best insurance money could buy thanks to being the president of a nano-science firm. Still, he desperately needed the help of High Fives.
“Even with the best insurance in the world, it would only pay for a few days of physical therapy a week, and what I wanted to do was 5 to 7 hours of therapy a day. Where insurance left off, High Fives Foundation picked up and helped. It was through the foundation that I was able to do those countless hours of PT.”
The Small Things
The rehabilitation and training will undoubtedly continue, but it’s with the knowledge that there’s nothing bigger in life than the little things.
“People ask me all the time, what my ultimate goal is,” Grant said. “The real goal for me is to get down to one cane because I want to walk down the street holding my wife’s hand. It’s the simple things we take for granted that are the big things. I want to hold Shawna’s hand and walk.”
Grant is seeking those types of goosebump moments, which he says, can be found every single day.
“As human beings, we’re here to experience joy,” Grant said. “If we’re here to extract joy, quantify it on a scale from 1 to 10. If you can pull out a ‘No. 5 joy’ from something as small as taking a few steps backwards with a cane, and you give the same value to landing a double backflip on a motorcycle, well then, is there a difference? No.”
If the purpose in life is to seek joy, find it, and dish it back out into the world, then Grant has found the perfect recipe. He has allowed himself to feel how good he really feels, but ironically, that didn’t come until he lost feeling from the waist down.
Space blanket or no space blanket, the Korgan’s are insulated by so much more.