Former Kamiakin runner facing uphill climb after bicycle accident paralyzed him from the waist down

Matt Benoit, Murrow News ServiceApril 27, 2014 

AmyJo Aikele says her brother doesn't remember the cycling crash that paralyzed him from the waist down.

Nathan Aikele, 31, a former cross country and track standout at Kamiakin High School in Kennewick, was leading a field of 96 riders April 10 near the finish of a weekly race on a 1.6-mile asphalt track in Austin, Texas.

Diane Goggins of Dallas, one of his four sisters, said that as he neared the finish, he looked back over his right shoulder to gauge his lead while nearing two sharp U-turns.

Nathan Aikele went off course and struck a tree, the impact crushing his T-7 and T-8 vertebrae and tearing his spinal cord in half. Any part of his body below mid-rib cage likely will never regain feeling, Goggins said.

He also broke his sternum, two ribs and a hand. Doctors have reconstructed his broken spinal column using metal rods, screws and bone from his pelvis.

Goggins said the situation still seems surreal.

Nathan Aikele is on pain medication but often finds it hard to sleep. He takes comfort in prayer and reading Scriptures. Although his body is battered, Goggins said his attitude is strong.

"He has been amazing," she said. "I have not seen him, at any point, say anything negative."

True to himself

AmyJo Aikele of Dallas said her older brother -- the only boy among Lori and Mike Aikele's five children -- always was athletic. Their parents live in Richland.

When she ran track at Kamiakin High School, where her brother graduated in 2002, the cross country coach would often talk of his speed. She felt the need to live up to his expectations.

"I was like, 'OK, I can do this,' because I have to be as fast as my brother,'" she said.

Goggins said her brother loved his friends, being athletic and going to church while in high school, and he has always lived his life in a way that reflects his values.

After high school, Nathan Aikele attended college at Brigham Young University-Idaho, delaying graduation for two years to do mission work in Mexico through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Graduating in 2010, he went to podiatry school, attending Midwestern University in Glendale, Ariz.

While there, he was introduced to the sport of cycling, and whenever he wasn't studying or doing medical rotations, Goggins said he was winning races in Texas, Arizona and Colorado.

The day of the accident, he drove to Austin from San Antonio, where he was doing a podiatry rotation at the University of Texas at San Antonio, one that would continue for another seven weeks before graduation.

Now, he faces months of rehabilitation.

Nathan Aikele flew in a private plane to Seattle's Harborview Medical Center on Friday, his family said.

He likely will face anywhere from eight weeks to six months of rehab before continuing with outpatient physical therapy, AmyJo Aikele said.

Whatever happens next, she said, he's ready to accept.

Tunnel vision

Since the accident, Goggins said they've been flooded with emails and phone calls from friends and family -- and a surprise visit from cyclist Lance Armstrong.

Armstrong, who has a home in Austin, also has ridden in the same racing series as Nathan Aikele, whose damaged bike wound up at Armstrong's Austin bike shop, Mellow Johnny's.

AmyJo Aikele said her brother talked to Armstrong mainly about cycling, and asked him about how he overcame the pain and the agony of big uphill climbs in the Tour de France.

"Lance said, 'You get tunnel vision, and you focus, and you get it done,'" she said. "And my brother told me, 'That's what I'm going to do.'"

Armstrong also has helped support Nathan Aikele's recovery on Twitter, trending the hashtag "nateforthewin." The hashtag has helped bring attention to the online fundraising account Goggins recently began on Fundly to help with medical costs.

After three days, more than 409 people had donated more than $37,000.

Goggins said they've received donations from people they know, people they don't, other cyclists and a paraplegic.

"It's been incredible," she said. "It leaves you speechless."

Goggins said they hope to raise $100,000 to offset medical costs that include rehab, a wheelchair and a hand-operated vehicle. Although insurance is covering part of the care, Goggins said paraplegic care costs can exceed $1 million during the first year after an accident.

Although it is unlikely Nathan Aikele will ever walk again, Goggins said her father is an example of how medical miracles can happen.

In 1998, he was diagnosed with leukemia and given three months to live. Sixteen years later, he's still alive.

Now, Nathan Aikele and his family are hoping for one more miracle.

"If it happens, we'll rejoice," Goggins said, "and if it doesn't happen, Nate's going to find a way to make something positive out of this accident. Because that's the kind of guy he is."

-- Tri-City Herald intern Matt Benoit is a Washington State University student: 509-947-9277, mbenoit@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @Matt_Benoit

How to help

-- For more information about how to donate, go to https://fundly.com/nate-for-the-win

-- An account called "Fighting to the Finish Line" has been set up at Gesa Credit Union.

Editor's note: Corrected to fix Diane Goggins' last name.

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