In 2008, as a sophomore at the University of Saint Mary in Leavanworth, Kansas, Nathan Carey had secured his spot as the starting running back for the football team after a great showing in spring ball.
“That summer I chose not to come back to Alaska because like, football was going well so I thought I would just stick around Leavenworth and workout. But I had so much free time that I picked up a job at a local moving company,” recalled Carey during a Sunday interview at Barnes and Noble.
Little did he know; those two seemingly innocuous decisions would end up laying the foundation for an incredible comeback story.
A month after taking the job, Carey was working on the loading dock when an unstable crate filled with 2000lbs of workout equipment toppled off the forklift and crushed the 5’9”, 170lbs athlete.
“It was a pretty quick process. There wasn’t any time for someone to yell ‘watch out’ because it was falling so fast,” explained Carey. “I just remember, I was on my side and it had completely landed head-to-toe on my body. My face got super-hot and I felt like I was going to explode. And then I passed out.”
When Carey woke up, the debris from the accident had been cleared and he was surrounded by a circle of panicked co-workers as he struggled for breath.
“A broken rib had punctured my lung so I couldn’t catch my breath, so that was the freak out part. But almost instantly, I had the weirdest sensation. There was like no connection, the lights were off in my body from my mid-back down my legs. Obviously, I don’t know anything about medical stuff but like, I could just diagnose, I’m paralyzed,” said Carey.
The accident had left Carey with a T-12 burst fracture and it would be four days before the swelling in his back would subside enough for surgery. It would be another few weeks before he was transferred to the Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Center at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado where he would stay for the next two months.
“There weren’t a whole lot of days you could complain because like, to your right was pregnant woman who was pushing through her spinal cord injury while caring another person inside her and then to your left you could have a guy who’s a quadriplegic who’s busting his back just to move his finger an inch,” said Cary when asked how he coped with his paralysis.
Carey returned to college after missing only one semester and in 2012, he graduated with a degree in Sports Management before moving back home to Alaska where he was quickly recruited by Challenge Alaska.
“One night my friends invited me to a ski movie premier at Bearthooth [Theatre] and I met Jeremy Anderson who is the adaptive ski and snowboard director for Challenge Alaska. He was like, how have we not met you before? We need to get you up the mountain,” chuckled Carey. “I hadn’t skied as a kid but it didn’t take me long to fall in love with it. Like, it was the first time I could go fast again and feel some adrenaline.”
Now four years later, Carey plays goalie for the Alaska Avalanche Sled Hockey team, teaches adaptive skiing, does adaptive CrossFit and sinks free throws at the Spenard Recreational Center basketball courts.
When asked about his future goals, Carey just shyly smiles.
“Goals for the future? Man, that’s a brutal question! I’ve always been bad at setting goals. I don’t know, I guess my goal is don’t have a bad day.”
*Originally published by the Anchorage Press