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Curtis Brinkman: Visualizing Success and The Will To Win
When he was 16 years old, Raymond Curtis Brinkman wanted to leave Idaho and the family’s potato farm, and become a professional basketball player.
Young Curt, already 6’ 7” tall and with some more growing still to do, dreamed of trying out for a team like the New York Knickerbockers. It was the 1969-70 season, and the Knicks were winning the NBA championship for the first time ever. But one day, while he was working on the potato farm, Curt’s dreams of playing professional basketball were shattered. Curt described that moment, and the months and years that followed, in an interview a few years ago.
“I was working on the farm, and I climbed up on top of a power pole. Why I was up there is anybody’s guess, including my own. As I was standing up there, the electricity jumped about a foot from one of the wires to my knees. It was as if somebody took a couple of pieces of dynamite, put one on each one of my legs, and pushed the plunger. There was a literal explosion as the electricity entered my body and exited. It hit me a second time and a third time. After the third time, the circuit breaker power shut off and when that happened the doctor said my heart stopped.
“The electrician who investigated afterwards also said that undoubtedly my heart stopped. When my heart stopped, my body relaxed and I let go of the hold that I had on the pole. I fell 25 feet to the ground and landed on my chest, which started my heart again. I am very fortunate to be alive.”
Curt’s electrocution by 36,000 volts, and subsequent fall to the ground, left him mortally injured. Doctors were forced to amputate both of his legs a foot above his knees. There was internal damage as well, resulting in eventual problems with his heart, kidneys, liver, gall bladder and later, serious diabetes.
“I spent five months in the hospital because of the nature of my accident and the burns and how they affected my body. I was flown from Idaho to Salt Lake and spent five months in the Latter Day Saints hospital in Salt Lake City.”
After the months of surgeries and hospitals, he was sent home to begin his new life in a wheelchair – alive, but certainly not the life an athletic 16-year-old dreams of, especially pro basketball. The future was more than grim. But Curt says some friends helped him change his attitude.
“I had a handful of friends that made a big difference in my life, and helped me realize that I could still do things. I started playing basketball with them out on my driveway. They would go out and scoop the snow and we would go out and play basketball. I came to realize that I could still do things even though I didn’t have my legs anymore.”
From there, Curt found the courage to begin thinking about accomplishing more than most people would expect to accomplish who still had both their legs.
Life is what you make it.
Curt began to see how life in a wheelchair didn’t have to mean the end of any quality of life. If nothing else, Curt Brinkman was a young man with a tremendous energy and zest for life and living. He learned that life was what you make it, that you don’t have to settle for what is handed to you.
He completed high school, and went on to Boise State University where he received degrees in business, psychology and elementary education. He decided to get a master’s degree in educational leadership from Brigham Young University (BYU), and while there, worked for the last two years as community relations director for an organization serving the handicapped population.
After leaving college, he spent 12 years in human resources, and eventually ended up as a motivational speaker. But we’re getting ahead of the story. During the decade after college, Curt found himself increasingly “in the limelight”, as he describes it, because of athletic accomplishments.
Yes, his stellar athletic accomplishments! In his wheelchair!
Curt Brinkman became the quintessential “wheelchair athlete”, someone who is so competitive, who trains so hard, who wants so badly to win no matter what it takes, that being confined to a wheelchair is just one more challenge to be taken on and overcome.
Curt started entering wheelchair races, track and field and other sporting events. By the mid ‘70s, he was winning some. “I continued to improve, it was important to me to show I was capable of doing it. I worked hard,” Curt said. He learned from a coach at BYU how to use his entire body to get more power throwing the discus. The technique helped him improve from 35 feet to 85 feet.
“At a competition in California, some guy told me I had to throw 115 feet just to qualify for the finals. Oh my god, what am I going to do,” he said. “So I went over to an empty field to practice, and it was always 80 to 85 feet. This wasn’t working. So I started visualizing what the coach had taught – picturing it my mind, going through the process from start to release, with 115 feet in my mind. Visualizing it. Over and over and over. 115 feet.”
Shortly, it was time for the competition. Curt took his place in the circle. “I followed the routine exactly, just as I’d pictured it in my mind. I let it go and when they measured it, it was 114 ft 11 inches!
“Now, they could have marked it wrong (here he laughs). But more significant than that was, I visualized that thing happening successfully, and it went sailing 115 feet – which was 30 feet further than I’d ever thrown it before. Little did I know that the guy who told me I needed to throw 115 feet to qualify was just trying to psych me out. The record was 108 feet 9 inches, and I had just set a new national record.”
From there, Curt qualified for the nationals, and also the Olympics, where he set more records. In the 1976 Olympics, Curt won a gold in the 100 meters and bronzes in discus and lawn bowling. In the 1980 games, he took home two golds and a silver.
“So, you can see that it helps to have someone work with you, show you the appropriate kinds of knowledge, in order to do well.”
But also in 1980, Curt accomplished an even more astounding victory. “I won the Boston Marathon, setting a world record of 1 hour and 55 minutes. No one had ever run the marathon faster than 2:07.”
Understand what he is saying; he didn’t beat the other wheelchair marathoners, he beat ALL the marathoners. Curt was 17 minutes ahead of the fastest runner with legs! He was the first marathoner in recorded history to make the 26-plus miles in less than two hours. “I was the fastest marathoner in the history of the world,” he laughs, “and I did it in a wheelchair!” The fastest wheelchair time up until then had been 2:26 – a half-hour slower than Curt’s time.
“I have had a lot of difficulties including diabetes for the last 25 years. I have to take insulin injections four to five times a day, depending on how I am doing. I am in worse health than most people who have diabetes. I had kidney damage and liver damage.”
As the years passed, Curt endured more than 45 surgeries on his heart, kidney, hip, gall bladder, hands, shoulders and on and on – some from the original accident, others from the wear and tear of his incredible wheelchair exploits.
Curt continued to race into his 50s, and won his last race four years ago, the St. George Marathon, at age 54. But last year, at 56 years old, Curt Brinkman passed away at his home with his family at his side, following challenges brought on by all the health complications, including diabetes and heart problems, that he’d battled his entire adult life.
Curt’s life could have been consumed by all the surgeries, the constant pain, and the months of healing. Instead, Curt turned it into the game of rebuilding damaged nerves, tendons and organs, retraining muscles to do everything they can possibly do, setting seemingly impossible goals, and then going out and achieving them. Curt’s 1981 book, The Will To Win, was the beginning of Curt’s ensuing success as a motivational speaker.
On the starting line of the 1980 record-setting Boston Marathon, Curt remembers his wife calling from the sidelines 25 yards away, “Don’t forget the story of the little boy!”
This was a poem they both liked, by Dr. D.H. “Dee” Groberg, about a little boy who falls down three times during a race, but finds inspiration from his dad, who’s watching, to get back up and keep trying to win. The boy comes in last, but receives a huge ovation from the crowd for his courage to get back up and keep trying.
And to his dad he sadly said, “I didn’t do too well.”
“To me, you won,” his father said, “you rose each time you fell.”
This sums up Curt’s philosophy ever since the accident that changed his life. “I’ve had all kinds of experiences physically,” Curt once said, “but I bounce back.”
Here at Novus, our patients have come to realize they must “get back up” from where substance abuse has put them, and reclaim their lives no matter what it takes. And we are proud to help them by passing on our knowledge and experience.
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