(Originally published in the Kindersley Clarion – July 2, 2014)
In a matter of seconds life can change, for better or worse. Norm Neigum experienced the latter last year in what could have been a fatal car crash. But it was his hobby, his passion, of racing that brought him from the brink of death, and love from his community and family that keeps him going today.
Although he’s humble about it, Neigum is the best when it comes mud racing. He owns two of the fastest 4×4’s in the sport, and after 20 years of racing he’s won more in the Canadian Mud Racing Organization (CMRO) than anyone. He’s figured out not only how to win, but how to stay at the top. Just like any sport, modern advances and technology means everyone is shaving seconds off their personal bests, pushing athletes, racers, and all competitors in general to push their limits. Neigum is no different and he stayed ahead of the curve with trucks that have more horsepower. However, don’t assume that the racer with the most horsepower is going to be the king of the sport. Neigum’s won with less horsepower, sometimes the least among his competitors. It takes a reactive driver to be the best, and Neigum’s reactions were keen and quick.
However, on Oct. 13, 2013 Neigum couldn’t react.
He and his son Shane were in North Carolina purchasing some new racing units. They went down to Georgia with a friend who lives in the area to a privately owned track to test and tune the suspension on the new purchase. He completed four successful runs the day prior, and was on his third run of the day. It was business as usual until that point. Neigum pressed down on the throttle as he normally would and launched forward. However, this time his heart stopped. Neigum blacked out with his foot on the throttle and crashed the vehicle at full speed. As Neigum would later find out, he had unofficially set a world record during that run. 200 feet in 1.97 seconds.
As luck, or perhaps fate, would have it Neigum’s life was saved by that car accident. The impact of the crash re-started his heart. If he was walking down the street, out for lunch, or working on his vehicle that afternoon Neigum doesn’t know if he would be sharing his story today.
“It’s the racing that saved my life. It left me a paraplegic. I’m paralyzed from the breast down to my toes and you know, I guess I’m still alive though, right?” Neigum said.
The road to recovery has been a long one and far from easy. But with each passing day Neigum improves a little bit. It started at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, the best spinal cord recovery centre in the world. While the worst was over with the crash, Neigum was still fighting for life. His heart stopped six times while he was there and seven cardiologists could not figure out his peculiar case. Why did his heart stop during that afternoon on Oct. 13? The doctors acknowledged that Neigum has the heart of a 25 year old, and so they started to investigate the factors that could have led to his heart stopping in the first place. Neigum told them about stress built up over the year – he is a self-proclaimed workaholic after all, he used racing as an escape from work – he had a bad flu at the time, and had quite a bit of anxiety that day.
“I think it was the right formula for what happened. I was in pretty rough shape down there,” Neigum said.
It wasn’t just his spinal cord injury and heart problems that were an issue. In the crash Neigum broke many bones and had multiple injuries that needed to be tended to. After initial operations, Neigum’s surgeon told him that he had never seen someone survive the damage that Neigum had sustained.
After four and a half months at hospitals in Georgia, Neigum returned home and has been to Saksatoon four times for hospital visits. The return to Kindersley was a welcome one. It allowed him the opportunity to try and get back to a normal life. He’s been focusing on healing this year and relearning his body. Neigum frequents the gym often, and still keeps himself busy by helping plan the second annual Kindersley Mud Races, an event he and his son Shane started along with the family.
“There’s nobody getting in his way, I can guarantee that. He’s a one of a kind guy. It’s been a bit of a bumpy road but I think the obstacles are starting to get a little smaller,” Shane said of his father’s road to recovery.
Neigum’s rehabilitation is of course aided by his family. But he believes, in fact he knows, that his recovery would not be possible without the love and support of the entire community. Neigum is awestruck by how the community has shown their support for not only him, but the entire Neigum family.
“I’m very lucky to be here with my family and the community. I’m very grateful for the community. Very, very grateful. There’s so much support here that you wouldn’t have coming from the city,” he said. “There’s so much support that keeps you motivated to move on.”
Neigum sees the support in the 1,100 Christmas cards his family received last year. He sees it in the 1,500 e-mails his children received within two days of his accident. He sees it in the support his family has received in operating the mud racing event. He sees it everywhere, and it keeps him going.
“I sure would like to thank everybody in the community. I can’t thank everybody enough for the support and prayers that brought me and my family through all this. And also the family support that helped bring us through this miracle,” Neigum said.
There’s a thrill of going upwards of 140 mph in a matter of 200 feet, and Neigum expects to reach those speeds again. He’ll be taking this year to recover, but expects to find himself in a modified chassis for next season. He doesn’t think he’ll be breaking any world records now, but that’s something he’ll leave up to his son. Besides, there isn’t a world record out there that’s more valuable than the second chance at life that Neigum has received and the caring community that has come with it.