Tom Napierski figured he had two choices after doctors amputated his left leg below the knee: be a slug or be a hero.
It's easy to guess which path the 64-year-old West Mountain man took. Since the July 2005 amputation, he's competed in every Freedom Run of America's Freedom Festival at Provo, joined one of the few disabled bobsled teams in the world and often speaks to youth groups about how choices shape one's life. Tough though his life may be since that life-altering surgery, Napierski is determined not to drown in self pity.
"It isn't easy," he said. "But you don't want to be a whiner."
Napierski opted for amputation after 40 years of dealing with an injury he suffered while "doing stupid things" as an 18-year-old. He and some friends were celebrating Labor Day up at a cabin near Lake Tahoe. They came across a large log wedged up on some rocks. They'd been drinking earlier that day and thought it'd be a good idea to move the log.
They rocked it back and forth a few times, and the log suddenly rolled. Napierski couldn't move quickly enough, and his leg was sandwiched between the log and some rocks, crushing the ankle.
The bone shards eventually fused together, but his joint had zero motion.
Napierski decided to make some life changes as a result of that incident.
"I gave up drinking," he chuckled.
He moved on and raised a family of eight children with his wife, Sandi, but the effects of the accident lingered. Circulation to his foot was impaired, the blood flow restricted. Napierski required skin grafts every 10 years. After 40 years, doctors feared gangrene would set in. They started to talk amputation.
Napierski said he didn't worry about the physical consequences of the surgery. He was no stranger to pain. He'd endured oozing sores and intense, cutting pain when he bumped his leg against a table. But amputation horror stories of post-surgery depression and phantom limb pains unsettled him. The Napierskis also worried about how they would adjust.
"It's quite a catastrophic change," Sandi said.
They decided to go through with the surgery. Surprisingly, Napierski felt relatively little pain, though it hurt his grown children to see their father missing a limb.
"You see your parents as invincible," said 28-year-old daughter Whitney Woydziak. "It was my first real insight that children start to take care of their parents at some point."
All the children pitched in to ease the transition period for their parents, but with her medical background, Woydziak knew getting their father out and moving was critical.
"After that type of an injury, if people don't start moving soon, they typically don't," she said.
So they talked Napierski into joining the 2006 Freedom Run, almost a year after the amputation. Outfitted with a prosthetic leg, Napierski completed the one-mile race.
"It was a pretty long mile," he said, but that didn't matter because the goal was to start and finish.
The next year, Woydziak decided to get her father to take it to the next level and compete in the 2007 Freedom Run 5K.
"Let's push it a little farther," she said.
"I don't think I can run five miles," Napierski told her.
"It's only 3.2 miles," she replied.
Though Napierski often went for two- to three-mile jogs on the rural roads by his West Mountain house, he wasn't sure he could finish a 5K. But Woydziak kept pressing him.
The day of the race came. Napierski was nervous as he approached the starting line. He noticed people looking at him and his prosthetic leg, but once the starter pistol fired, he got into a running motion and "settled down," Woydziak said. He crossed the finish line 36 minutes after starting.
"He definitely rose to the occasion," his daughter said.
Napierski also joined a two-man bobsled team since the amputation. Along with partner Gary Kuhl, he competes at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City for the National Ability Center. Last season, Napierski and Kuhl finished 15th in the Americas Cup, just 9.28 seconds behind a pair of fit 20-year-olds from Jamaica.
Life has improved for Napierski since the amputation, but it's not without its difficulties. He has to crawl up the stairs to go to bed. Sandi has to help out more around the seven-acre farm than previously, but the two see a purpose in the course of their lives.
"This is something that was in his life plan," Sandi said. "He has some lessons to learn, and I've had some lessons to learn."2 comments on this story
For Napierski, he's learned not to roll over and give up on life. He's also learned to use humor to cope. Often he'll tell people, "I'm lucky. I only have five toenails to clip."
Sandi also said Napierski has become somewhat of a hero for others who see what he does. He often speaks to youth groups about how to find the positive in life's challenges.
"He is a much better man for it," she said.
Napierski readily admits he's had his share of bad days along with the good days, but, overall, life's been good and he plans to "just keep going.""I figure I have a few good years left," he smiled. "I was trying to make sure that this was a success story."