Gold medalist excels despite amputations

Playing rugby in a wheelchair with amputations to both arms and both legs is not easy.  But for Nick Springer, it motivates him to succeed in life. Springer is a paralympian, a member of USA’s Quad Rugby team, and winner of two world championship gold medals and an Olympic gold medal from the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

In June, Springer spoke with USF athletic training students about his experiences, how he went from being a highly recruited hockey player in high school, to losing all four limbs to partial amputations, to retraining and earning Olympic gold.

Nick Springer (center) with USF athletic training students.

“I wanted our students to see firsthand that Nick is not a gold medal winner who happens to be disabled,” said Jeff Konin, PhD, PT, ATC, associate professor and vice chair of USF’s Sports Medicine, who coordinated Springer’s visit.

“Rather, he is an amazing human being who is just like you and I in so many ways.  Despite obstacles thrown his way, he set his goals and he attained them.”

Springer was a highly recruited high school hockey player who experienced a unique illness as a teenager. An avid hiker, he was just 14 years old when, at a summer camp, he took a sip of water from a friend’s water bottle.

Sharing water from a friend, he later learned, is how he contracted bacterial meningococcal meningitis.

Considered to be a life-threatening disease, this rare but dangerous disease claims some 300 lives annually in the United States. While some survive, they often do so with residual medical complications. Teens are at greatest risk of acquiring bacterial meningitis. 

The disease left Springer in a drug-induced coma for two months. When he woke up, he realized that his life had been spared, but that he had lost all four limbs to partial amputations.  He had no recollection of what happened, and entered a world unknown to him.

Springer shared with the USF students how he had to be revived some half-dozen times during the early stages of his drug-induced coma.

“I remember the priest giving me my last rights and I remember the doctor telling my family to say their final goodbyes to me – I heard that,” said Springer, who volunteered to speak to the USF athletic training students June 8. 

“But once I started to come around, I thought to myself that getting depressed about losing my limbs isn’t going to bring them back.”

Once he realized he could still determine his quality of life, he dedicated his life once again to what he loved most – athletics.

“When you are a teenager and someone in a rehabilitation center tells you that you need to exercise just a month after you lost both arms and both legs, you have no motivation to do so,” Springer said.

“But, when someone says you need to exercise if you ever want to play sports again, then you take a different perspective.”

Springer played sled hockey (ice hockey on sleds for disabled athletes) for a number of years before he found his real passion and love, quad rugby. His accomplishments in just six years are nothing short of amazing. He is considered to be one of the best players in the world on the best team in the world. 

Today, Springer is on a mission to educate all college students to get vaccinated against this deadly disease, something recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at the age of 11. Bacterial meningitis is believed to be spread by close contact between individuals, such as with kissing, sharing of drinks or cigarettes. Symptoms may include severe headaches, fever, stiff joints especially the neck area, bruising and vomiting.

Springer’s next major goal is to win another gold medal in the upcoming 2012 Summer Olympic Games to be held in London.  On this trip, he will be accompanied by Dr. Konin, who serves as the head athletic trainer for Team USA Quad Rugby.