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Nick Springer

Inner Fire…
The truly Great use adversity as fuel

Life-changing events happen. And when they do, we are given a choice — a choice to be bitter or better. I spoke to one Great champion on the phone last week who had to make this decision ten years ago. He chose to be better and the result is an inspirational story about family, hope and passion that I feel fortunate to share this holiday season.

Nick Springer was a typical 14-year-old growing up on Long Island. He loved playing hockey and spending time with friends. But then tragedy struck in the form of bacterial meningitis while he was at summer camp in Massachusetts.

After being airlifted from a local hospital to the Pediatric Trauma Unit in Springfield, Nick was administered Last Rites, as doctors were doubtful he would survive the night. The last thing he remembers was saying good-bye to his mother over the phone as his parents rushed to be by his side.

Two months later, as he faded in and out of consciousness while waking from a medically-induced coma, his family tried to gently explain what had happened to him. Finally, when he was fully awake, they waited for Nick to realize his situation. It was important to the family that Nick be the one to feel ownership of his condition. But when he told them that he understood both his legs and hands had been amputated, his reaction shocked them. “I’m going to be okay,” he assured them from his hospital bed. “Don’t worry.”

“After something like this, a mourning period is natural,” Gary, Nick’s father, explained to me during our recent conversation. “We were always waiting for that.” But it never came. Every bit as energetic and positive as he’d been before the disease, Nick returned to his new life with humor and passion. He recalls the time a family friend visited his hospital room, where he jokingly greeted her with: “Quick – how many fingers am I holding up?”

It is not the events in our life that define our character, but how we deal with them. -Eric Heiden, Olympic skaterWhile at the Boston Marathon, where some friends were running to raise money for his family, Nick started talking to a man in a wheelchair wearing a jacket with “Sled Hockey” emblazoned on the back. It turned out that the sport was a version of regular hockey adapted for people with physical disabilities. A few months later, Nick was playing on a local team and grinning like mad every time he took to the ice.

Not long after that, a teammate suggested that Nick try wheelchair rugby, another adapted sport. While he wasn’t initially interested — hockey was his first love — his family urged him to give it a shot; it quickly became apparent that Nick had natural talent.

springer3But it wasn’t just the physical activity and competitive drive on the field that helped Nick grow; he was also inspired by the challenges that his teammates regularly issue to one another in their fervor for living full lives. “So many people with disabilities are used to being coddled,” Nick told me. “But on the team, everyone treats each other as equals.” The matches were a celebration of all that the players were able to do with no room for focusing on what they couldn’t.

Now, almost ten years later, Nick has an impressive resume to back up his can-do attitude. This past September, he traveled to Vancouver for the Wheelchair Rugby
World Cup, and helped the U.S. Paralympic Team take home the gold medal. His teams have also won the world championship in Beijing in 2008; the Canada Cup in 2006 and 2008; the North American Cup in 2006; and gold medals in both the 2005 World Wheelchair Games in Rio de Janiero, Brazil and World Wheelchair Rugby Championships in Christchurch, New Zealand.

People often ask Nick if he wonders what his life might have been like if disease hadn’t robbed him of his extremities. “It’s really kind of hard to say what would have happened, but I’m pretty happy with the way my life has turned out,” Nick said. “And I really believe things turned out this way because of the attitude I took. There’s a lot that came out of it — I don’t know of many other people who would have gone to the Olympics. I sure wouldn’t have!”

Tips from the Great Ones

What hardships are you facing right now? How is your attitude impacting your response to disappointing or distressing circumstances? Who can you look to support you through this difficult period?

Nick explained to me that the presence of family and friends around him was what let him know right away that his life wasn’t over. “Obviously, this wasn’t where I wanted to be at 14,” he admitted to me. “But I knew they weren’t going to let me fail. I felt lucky because it could have been worse.”

Instead of focusing on what things have not gone your way, try to keep your sights set on the things that have. Do you have a supportive network of family, friends or coworkers? Do you have your health?

Apply this Characteristic: Consider the three biggest challenges of the past year, then write down at lease one positive outcome of each of those difficult times. Maybe it was growing the business in a new direction; maybe it was personal development or a fresh perspective. Keep those positive reminders next to your calendar or in your desk as inspiration as you look ahead to 2011. Especially during the holiday season, it can be easy to look at what you lack, or whatfailures you may have encountered over the past year. But instead, try focusing on the accomplishments and successes the past twelve months have brought. Maybe you lost one major client, but did you end up adding another…or three? Perhaps a sales pitch went poorly, but did you sharpen your presentation skills so as to not make the same mistake twice?

Don’t let a difficult experience or trying time stop you from striving towards Greatness — use it to propel you forward. Keep a positive attitude but more than that, keep a sense of perspective. You can be Greater than your challenges!

Do you know a story of true Greatness from your community? I’d love to hear it! Please write to to share it.

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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