By Rachel Afraimi
Ask any skateboarder to describe John Cardiel and the most commonly used word is ‘Legend’.
Cardiel was known for being fast and fearless. In 1992, he was named Skateboarder of the Year by Thrasher Magazine. In 2011, Transworld Skate Magazine named Cardiel the 11th most influential skateboarder of all time.
In December of 2003, Cardiel was on tour and filming a skate video in Australia when he suffered a major spinal cord injury.
“We had been filming for a month and on the last day of the trip is when the accident happened,” Cardiel said.
The accident occurred when Cardiel was running along side a van and was hit from behind by a trailer. He woke up in the hospital and couldn’t feel his legs. For the next six months, Cardiel was in a spinal cord rehabilitation unit.
“I was determined to walk again because I had been active my whole life and couldn’t take the thought of never walking again,” Cardiel said. “I was told by the doctors that I would never walk again and my response was ‘F that. I’m walking out of here.’ As a skateboarder, whenever somebody told me I couldn’t do something, it just made me want to do it even more. Learning to walk again was like accomplishing the biggest trick of my life.”
Progessing Off the Board
During the first three months of Cardiel’s recovery process, his spinal cord was so swollen that the hospital reported the injury as a severed spine.
“When I was in the rehab center, they only knew me as a severed patient and they didn’t feel there was any hope I would walk again, but they would try anyways,” Cardiel said. “Spinal cord injuries are so intense and if your spine isn’t completely severed you have to get to rehabbing within in the first year or your nerves will collapse.”
Cardiel spent those first months trying to understand how the communication with his body had broken down. It was during this time that he started to feel movement in his lower extremities.
“This started to give me more hope,” Cardiel said of finally experiencing sensation in his legs and toes again.
As the recovery process moved forward, Cardiel spent months adapting to life in a wheelchair. He was not allowed to leave the Australian hospital until he learned how to take care of his body as a paraplegic. Six months after the accident, he was released and returned to the United States.
Upon his return, Cardiel contacted friend and professional skateboarder Danny Way, who had recovered from a broken neck. Way got Cardiel in touch with Paul Chek of the C.H.E.K Institute so that he could continue his rehabilitation in San Diego.
From Wheelchair to Bike
Cardiel went from being in a wheelchair to using a walker before he progressed to just a cane. One year after the injury, Cardiel was able to be stable on his feet.
“I said to myself, ‘If I can walk with a cane, I can ride a bike. Even if it’s cruising, at least I will have freedom and wind on my face.’”
He built a bicycle with a huge seat because at the time his body was still not very strong.
“At the time I was still having issues with my feet not being able to stay on the pedals, so I made the bike just so I could cruise,” Cardiel said.
Cardiel said he had a little taste of freedom, but it wasn’t enough.
“The feeling was kinda sour and I wanted more,” Cardiel admitted.
Then he was introduced to fixed gear biking, which better worked for his new body.
“If you have a paralyzed leg, for example my left leg is very hard to pull up,” Cardiel said. “With a fixed gear bike, I can push down with my right leg and it pushes my left leg up. Also the pedals hold my feet in. I don’t have quick motion in my lower extremities so everything has to be purposely done. Using this bike, it does it for you and I can go fast.”
Cardiel was so pleased with his bike that he started his own company, Break Free Customs.
“I learned how to work on bikes as a kid and when I was hurt and stuck at home I would start building bikes,” Cardiel said. “I sold a bike to a friend and it came together very organically. It’s been a labor of love.”
Four years after the accident, John was back on a skateboard for an ad for Anti-Hero Skateboards.
“Everything I did those four years was to get back on a board,” Cardiel said. “Skateboarding has been my whole life. Everything I know had been integrated in skateboarding to be able to express myself in the free manner which I wanted too. I wanted to do the ad to give back to the skateboarding community and to those who supported and believed in me.”
Though it’s been nine years since the accident, Cardiel still has to be very conscious of his body in his day-to-day life.
“I still have residual effects of the being paralyzed, so I have to gauge and plan my daily activities when I leave the house,” Cardiel said. “In the beginning, your body just wants to curl up and die. I had to make my body move forward and be consciously connected.”
Now Cardiel is looked at as a resource for people who have suffered similar injuries.
“I just want to be helpful to people who need encouragement and hope,” Cardiel said.
Greater than any athletic talent, the ability to overcome adversity is clearly what makes John Cardiel the Legend that he is.