On Dec. 22, 2001, Nathan Ogden stood at the top of a steep ski slope in beautiful Bend, Oregon. The morning mountain air smelled like Christmas.
On this glossy, travel-magazine morning, Ogden raced down the mountain and launched himself off a large jump more than 30 feet into the air. He’d spent years soaring above the snow, but this time something was different. Ogden caught more air than expected and slowly rotated backward, slamming onto the slope.
He asked his body to stand, but his legs didn’t listen. Ogden would soon learn his neck wasn’t just broken — it was shattered.
Still, despite long odds, even there on the side of a ski slope, he knew one day he would walk again.
Over the next few months, this married, Latter-day Saint father of a little boy and girl determined that a broken neck did not necessarily have to mean a broken spirit. While the doctors were doubtful he would walk again, he threw his soul into rehab and remained confident.
Gradually, sensation returned to his legs and feet and despite still being in a wheelchair, he could tackle many of life’s daily tasks for himself.
Doctors called his progress “miraculous.” But it wasn’t fast enough; he wanted more. Ogden worked tirelessly for a year to regain use of his arms and hands. He even began to move his legs, and though he wasn’t yet walking, it was enough to convince him that he one day would.
As hope continued to gather downhill momentum, Ogden had no idea he was racing toward an even bigger obstacle.
Though he’d regained 50 percent of his body movement, he still struggled with internal issues even tougher to treat. On Feb. 4, 2003 — 13 months after the accident — Ogden caught pneumonia and fell unconscious in his sleep. When his wife couldn’t wake him, she called 911 and he was rushed to the ER. Still unconscious, doctors decided to X-ray his lungs. That’s when the unthinkable happened.
Technicians dropped him to the floor.
Additional X-rays told a horror story no one could believe. Incredibly, for the second time, Nathan Ogden had a broken neck. This time, the break was higher up, and he was now permanently paralyzed.
All the hard work, all the hours of rehab — all of it had crashed on the floor with him.
I recently met this inspiring man when we shared the stage at a conference in Boise, Idaho. He has an electric smile, bright eyes and a quick sense of humor. He also has no use of his hands, very little of his arms and zero sensation from the chest down.
After hearing his stunning story, I asked him what went through his mind when he awoke and learned his neck was broken — again. "The first words I said to my wife when she told me were, ‘Bring it on.’ I knew that if I had done it once, I could do it again.”
Ogden concedes it was much easier said than done. “Even though I tried hard to always be positive over the next few years, I experienced some pretty low times. I had fought so hard to progress to that point, only to have it ripped out from under me.”
He speaks of the challenges of feeling mentally trapped. “I desperately tried to be a good father and husband, but I slipped into depression and denial. How will I ever achieve anything now? What am I worth to anyone? I lost my job, friends, self-esteem and almost my marriage. Being physically paralyzed is extremely difficult, but not moving mentally is painfully worse.”
Over time, Ogden realized he needed to heal his spirit first. The only way he could was to lean on Jesus Christ. “While in the hospital, and then throughout my home, I’ve had pictures of the Savior. In my lowest of times and most painful and debilitating health, I have looked at those images and thought to myself, ‘As intense and grueling as this is, I know it's nothing compared to what our Redeemer suffered. I can get through this.’”
That attitude, Ogden says, taught him to feel more compassion and empathy towards others than he’d ever experienced.
Though he continues to progress physically and spiritually, Ogden still has challenging times. “When I'm really down, I pray for strength. Strength that I can fulfill the mission I was sent here to accomplish. I fully believe that I accepted this challenge before I came to Earth and that I was sent here on a special mission to take this challenge and magnify the positive results. This is a great motivation for me to push on and not given in. It can also weigh down on me wondering if I’m doing enough.”
Ogden is grateful for God’s grace throughout his ordeal, but he’s also quick to credit someone else. “We all know God never gives up on someone, but we tend to forget about the spouses or caregivers. My wife, Heather, has always been my anchor, my motivator, my coach, my reality check, my best friend and my angel here are Earth. I am nothing without her.”
His children have also played a critical role. After the second injury, they were blessed with two more daughters. Miraculously, Ogden has been able to baptize all four. Seniya, Kyler, Malani and Cortlyn are not just the apple of his eye, they’re the reason he fights the daily battle against adversity.
With his wife and children surrounding and supporting him, Ogden has since been skydiving, river rafting, hunting, snow skiing, water skiing and even completed a half-triathlon. To support his family, he’s venturing into consulting and public speaking and is writing a book to inspire as many as possible to believe in his two favorite words: hope and progress.
“You must have hope and progress in this life. Usually, it’s a hope for progress. If you have these two elements, I believe you will find happiness, success and peace. Without them, you can become mentally paralyzed, crippling your opportunities of moving forward. That forward progress is what generates a firm confidence and self-esteem. No, I can't choose to move my legs and walk, but I can choose to stand up and face my fears. So can you.”
With that kind of attitude, it’s no surprise that Ogden is back on top of the mountain. And while he might never leave the wheelchair in this life, his spirit is soaring higher than his legs could ever take him.