TRAVERSE CITY — Craig Vogtsberger has fleeting memories of walking between two military humvees as he trained stateside just before the National Guardsman deployed to Bosnia on a peace-keeping mission.
“I remember looking at them, wrecked, and realizing I’d just been crushed,” he said in a phone interview from Denver.
Twelve years later, Vogtsberger stills suffers from constant pain. Now he helps conquer the pain by training for triathlons.
“It lets me move the pain around,” said Vogtsberger, 38, of Traverse City. “Instead of laying down, suffering and sweating, I get out and the pain transfers from my spine to my muscles. I think it’s human to feel better when you can control things.”
The accident left him with traumatic injuries to his brain and spinal cord, leading to progressive paralysis. His left foot, leg and shoulder, and his right foot are paralyzed.
“My whole nervous system is wrecked, so swallowing, digesting food, breathing — my body struggles with it all the time,” he said. “I have points when my heart will pause and start beating again.”
After the accident, doctors “loaded him up with painkillers,” and told him he’d spend the rest of his life in a chair taking medications, said his mom, Marilyn Vogstberger of Traverse City.
“They gave him no hope of ever feeling better,” she said.
For four years, Vogstberger saw “hundreds of doctors” for surgeries in Veterans Administration hospitals across the country. Between appointments and physical therapies, he sat. One day, he was inspired to watch athletes compete in a Kalamazoo triathlon.
“I thought, ‘They’re free! Look at them swim, look at them bike, look at them run. That’s what I’m going to do,” he said.
He recalls being high on pain medication.
“I looked at the sky, and I thought, ‘Wow, the sky is so beautiful,’ and then I thought, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ I realized my life wasn’t my own. That was 2005. I decided I had enough of this crap,” he said.
He quit pain killers cold turkey. He told his doctor he was ready to get active was was outfitted with specialized braces. Vogstberger, an accomplished athlete in high school and college, had to learn how to compensate for his paralysis. To swim, for example, he curves his body sideways instead of facing down.
To run was “extremely difficult.” He rotates his hips to put all his weight on his right leg and then swings his left leg around.
“You start walking a quarter-mile, running a quarter-mile, and then it’s severe pain for several days.”
Now he can run a 7-minute mile and usually clocks 8-minute miles in longer races.
Vogtsberger trains in Denver, where he prefers the high altitude and has access to specialized medical help. During winter, he lives here with his parents. Cindi Toepel, his coach, said it’s both inspiring and challenging to coach Vogstberger, who must clip his paralyzed leg in one pedal and power it with the other one.
She coaches him for free as a way to “give back to veterans,” Toepel said.
Vogtsberger earned recognition as a para-athlete. He is listed as an Olympic hopeful for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. Last year, he was invited to join the Allard USA TeamUp, a national team sponsored by the company that makes his leg braces.
The team members, who all suffer from foot drop, ran its inaugural event on April 6 in North Carolina.
“That was an exceptional weekend,” Vogtsberger said. “It was great to spend time with people who all had the same problem.”
Vogtsberger’s schedule is packed with national competitions, which continues to worry his mom.
“What if he crashes on his bike?” she said. “There are so many instabilities in his vertebrae, it wouldn’t take a lot. And yet he does it and he does it well.”
Vogtsberger gives this advice for anyone who wants to get up out of their own chair.
“Just get started. Get out the door and everything else is easy,” he said.