‘Live life on life’s terms’
November 19, 2010
The story of Michael Roman is of a man with one leg who used to have two.
It’s a story about life a man, his family, his dreams, his incomprehensible fall and, ultimately, his triumphant rise.
The 44-year-old St. Louis, Mo., native was out shooting some hoops with his kids, enjoying his life back on that day in late 1994.
The blacktop was slick and, as Mike pivoted to do a half-hearted spin move, he slipped and fell, suffering a knee injury that would require the realigning of his knee cap, including an inserted screw.
That’s where the story goes to hell and back.
A vigorous staph infection spread like wildfire in Roman’s right leg. The infection became so bad that it went from a troublesome after thought to the doctors asking permission to amputate. His leg was amputated above the knee.
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Since 1995, Mike Roman has had 40 surgeries.
A few years after the amputation, he began feeling "phantom limb phenomenon," a common sensation among amputees who feel severe pain in the area of their removed limbs.
The pain was indescribable.
Roman was on over 400 milligrams of morphine a day. He could barely move. He was suicidal. His relationship with his wife and children was affected. In August 1999, his entire right leg up to the hip joint was removed.
In 2001, his wife Sue wrote a letter relating Roman’s story to Team Chevrolet and Coca-Cola which were sponsoring the torch relay for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
The sponsors asked Roman to carry the Olympic torch through his hometown of St Louis.
"Every day we’ve worn one of the Olympic shirts that we collected just as a reminder that this all started dreams," Roman said.
Just before he carried the torch, Roman said that he was at his lowest point in life. Fast forward to 2005, and Mike Roman was a man who had defeated his evils.
He was the beneficiary of a spinal-cord stimulator implant that is supposed to trick the brain into changing a painful impulse into a pleasant sensation.
Suddenly, Roman no longer spent hours just lying in bed, writhing in pain. His pain, like his person demons, vanished once the stimulator began working its magic.
"It’s possible to rise again," Roman said. "One of the coolest parts is that you get to reinvent yourself. Second chances are what it’s all about."
Since that time, it’s safe to say Mike Roman’s life has flown by or zoomed by.
Going back to when he was a 12-year-old boy, his dream was to race at the Indianapolis 500. So what did Roman do once the pain evaporated? He began racing Indy cars.
Nearly 10 years after dealing with the loss of his right leg, Roman told his family that not only did he want to drive over 200 miles per hour, but he wanted to do it consistently.
"We always knew this was going to be a part of me," he said. "Life’s kind of funny."
Since then, Roman has set all sorts of speed records.
He set a land-speed world record at the Bonneville Salt Flats. He’s ridden more than 1,700 miles on a handcycle. He completed the Los Angeles Marathon in two hours and 17 minutes.
Now, Roman has moved on to something bigger: he wants to qualify for the first Paralympics U.S. bobsled team.
"I want to be on the team," he said. "Now is the time."
While bobsled has yet to become an official Paralympics sport, Roman is optimistic that it will be in the very near future. He has been training with legendary bobsled coach Pat Brown and Utah’s own Jimmy Shea during his week at the UOP and has found similarities between Indy racing and bobsled.
"It’s anticipation," he said. "When I’m in turn three, I’m already looking for turn four. I think it’s so subtle. You’d think you really have to manhandle these sleds, but you get taught how to use the gravity of the corners.
"It’s very similar to an Indy car. You put too much in to it and your back end comes around."
Roman’s goals don’t stop at becoming a member of the first Paralympic bobsled team.
"I want to be the pilot, and I think I can," he said.
He also has turned into a strong advocate for helping those in chronic pain. He realizes now that he’s gotten his life back that it’s not about him; it’s about other people that aren’t as fortunate as he is.
"Getting to the Olympics is very important, but it’s not the end-all-be-all," he said. "It’s about the journey and the growth process and getting faster and better at this every single time.
"I truly hope that if one more person is able to come out and experience what I’ve experienced this week, then my journey is truly worth it."
Looking back, Roman cannot help but recognize the significance of the day he held the Olympic torch high above his hometown crowd. It was one of the turning points in getting to where he is today.
"On the torch it read, ‘Ignite the Fire Within,’" said an emotional Roman. "It’s kind of what happened that day."
Roman and Sue are now grandparents and enjoying all the blessings they’ve received since he was the beneficiary of the stimulator that curbed the horrid pain.
"One of our goals as a family was live life on life’s terms," he said. "It’s been an evolution, just like anything else."
Gone are those miserable days where he had no desire to push on. Now, he’s training with Olympic gold medalists and realizing the dream he promised his father 32 years ago racing professional race cars.
"Just to be in that sled, it’s been worth everything we’ve been through to be able to feel that freedom," he said. "I feel in the bobsled like I’m whole again."