Where There's a Will

Later, Jamie Osborne ’79 would discover that his bike had been defective, that a bit of debris caught under the front wheel had caused the frame to crack in three places. All he knew at the time, however, was that he was riding north along the Green River outside Seattle—when suddenly he was falling — straight down to pavement at 25 miles an hour. The next thing Osborne knew, he was lying on the ground, looking up at the sun through the trees. His bliss lasted only a moment before he became aware of a screaming pain in his neck and shoulders. That wasn’t as troubling, however, as the complete absence of pain — or any other feeling — in the lower two-thirds of his body. “That sent some shivers up my…” Osborne says, before catching himself. “That scared the heck out of me.”

Osborne chronicles his 2007 accident in a book published last year, Will Your Way Back: How One Man Overcame a Tragedy with a Winning Mindset. He describes how the same drive that caused him to push himself so hard in sports also helped him to recover from his spinal injury.

The American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) assigns five letters to spinal cord damage, with A being the most severe and E being the least. Osborne was diagnosed ASIA-C, a middle ground in which some patients fully regain their ability to walk, while others do not. “I was in this cone of uncertainty,” Osborne says, “not knowing what, if any, function I was going to get back.”

Lying awake during the fifth night in the ICU, he realized he had reached a fork in the road. “I said to myself, ‘You can let this injury defeat you, or you can fight the good fight and give it everything you’ve got.’ I decided I was going to fight.”

Osborne had grown up outside Boston in an active family, skiing by age 5. While attending prep school in Connecticut, he played hockey, soccer, and baseball, but he says it wasn’t until he rowed varsity crew at IC that he really knew what it meant to push himself. “That was really my foray into heart-pumping aerobic sports,” he says. “It was a big turning point in my life.”

Obsorne studied health administration at Ithaca, and after graduation, he took a job at a medical center in Seattle in 1981 doing systems analysis, a job that fit his highly analytical mind. In 1994, he started working in technology management at outdoor outfitter REI. There he discovered cycling, which quickly became his passion. He occasionally biked 25 miles each way to work and took a 20-mile group ride during his lunch break as well. Post-injury, he used his sports training to commit to physical therapy. He started rehab in a pool and on a treadmill, and then went to the gym to work with a personal trainer to strengthen his upper body.

After months of training, he was able to do a set of pushups every minute for 75 minutes—until he’d done more than 1,000 in all. Even as he was strengthening his arms and hands, he never gave up on the idea of getting back on his feet again to walk—and more. “From the days I was in the hospital doing therapy, I remember having this picture in my head of getting my ski boots back on,” Osborne says. “Over the years, I never lost sight of that particular goal.”

In his head, he repeatedly played a movie of being able to ski down Whistler Mountain in British Columbia. With time, he worked first to dress himself in ski gear again, and then to get up on skis. Finally in 2016, he and his family drove up to Whistler, where he took the chair lift to the top and skied down. “It was off the charts epic,” he says. Through his book, he hopes to inspire others who have had accidents to never give up on their goals. “I had to train myself physically to the point where I had the leg strength,” he says. “But for me anyway, it was just as important to visualize it and play that movie in my head in such detail. I believe there is real magic in that.