Track star who recovered from brain injury delivers message of hope in Breckenridge
It was 1976, and 22-year-old runner Steve Heidenreich was within a hair’s breadth of achieving his dream of qualifying for the Olympics. The trials were just months away, and the Indiana University student was running along the roads of Bloomington like he did nearly every morning.
Then, out of nowhere, a car swerved into the wrong lane and plowed into him from behind. His head slammed onto the pavement, cracking his skull and shattering his jaw. The car sped away, leaving him for dead, and the driver was never identified.
“The doctors said that people injured like me would never be the same, and they gave me a 5 percent chance of living,” Heidenreich said in an interview on Wednesday before a speaking event at Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge, where he moved with his wife in 2015. “They said that if I survived, I would be vegetative, and couldn’t complete school or compete as a racer again.”
Heidenreich proved the doctors wrong. He emerged from a coma after two weeks with the mental age of a toddler, but with the help of his mother, who quit her job as a special education assistant to re-introduce him to the world, he made swift progress.
Within several months, he was up to a mental age of 13 and decided he was ready to take a crack at finishing school.
“What’s wrong with that? A 13-year-old taking senior-level business classes?” he asked the crowd of CMC students, faculty and community members on Wednesday night. “Well, when you’re 13 you think you know everything. So I shifted my focus and said, ‘I’m going to do whatever I need to do to be successful.’”
Heidenreich has delivered speeches like this across the country, and the central message is to learn from setbacks and failures, visualize success and then be doggedly persistent in making that vision a reality.
That’s the method he had used since he was a scrawny teenager in the small town of Watertown, South Dakota, where he racked up running records and is now billed as the “greatest miler that South Dakota has ever produced” by the state’s Sports Hall of Fame.
After his injury, he applied his method of positive visualization to academics. Forced to relearn all of the technical vocabulary he had lost, it often took him three attempts just to finish his homework.
But the grind paid off, and he finished his first semester back with a 3.58 grade point average.
“Not bad for a 13-year-old, is it?” he asked the CMC crowd, to laughs.
Heidenreich had started running again, too, despite being told after his accident that he might not even walk again. Thirteen months after the hit-and-run driver permanently altered the trajectory of his life, he was running a four-minute, 21-second mile.
That was a bit slower than the sub-four minute times he clocked before the accident — when he ran for Indiana University and was ranked fourth in the nation for the 1,500 meter run — but Heidenreich said he was just happy to be racing again.
Soon, he was back to training for the Olympics, but once again his dreams were derailed by something entirely beyond his control when the U.S. boycotted the 1980 games in Moscow.
“That was brutal,” Heidenreich said.
But if he still harbors any bitterness, it doesn’t show. The former track star was jovial on stage in front of a display of his running memorabilia, even when asked about the accident that kept him from the Olympics.
“I don’t even know,” he answered when asked how he would feel if he could meet the person who shattered his Olympic ambitions. “I just had to forgive and forget and let go.”
Now, he’s focused on spreading his message of positivity and persistence to athletes and students across the country. He’s set to speak next at the Breckenridge Recreation Center in June, and will also head down to Aurora to address a track meet for disabled athletes.
Because of his own recovery, he’s particularly focused on advocating for the disabled through his work with the Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado and the Statewide Independent Living Council, which seeks to fully integrate people with disabilities into their communities.
“No matter what happened to me, I just tried to be positive and focus on my strengths,” he said. “Miracles can happen, and you can be great.”
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