A frightful fall
Bardstown grad breaks back, personal records
By Peter W. Zubaty
Two-time state champion pole vaulter Michael Seaman’s sophomore year at the University of Tennessee has been full of excitement, with the Bardstown grad cracking his personal best on a few occasions.
But cracking something else nearly cost him his athletic career, and his mobility.
In January, Seaman and the Volunteers were visiting the University of Kentucky for a meet — a place he traveled to many times during his high school career for training and instruction — and lots of friends and family were there. He was trying out a shorter pole for the first time and hadn’t quite adjusted to it.
“I have a bad problem with stepping way too close to the pit, so my hips were leading instead of my chest,” Seaman said. “I was approximately two feet closer than where I should’ve left the ground for maximum energy transfer.”
Not a huge problem.
“I’ve done that a million times in my career,” he said.
This time, however, something went horribly wrong.
“It felt normal. … it shot me right over 17 feet,” Seaman said. “(But) I looked down, and I was still over the runway.”
He made a cardinal mistake in the process, letting go of his pole. With nothing else to brace his fall, he sacrificed his ankle on the way to crumpling on the hard runway.
“I twisted the ankle — I think that took a lot of impact away from my back,” Seaman said.
Not enough, however. On the way down, Seaman had one of those slow-motion moments you hear about on TV.
“It’s kind of weird how your brain works,” he said. “Everything flashes through your head real quick … Am I going to break my leg? … Am I going to be able to keep jumping?”
“I couldn’t feel my legs,” he said. “I thought for a minute I was paralyzed.”
He already knew what had happened.
“I’m lying in the box, and I’m yelling, ‘My back is broke,’” Seaman said.
His mother, Daphne, saw it all unfold.
“He let out a horrifying scream,” she said. “That alone chills you to the bone.”
Chris Seaman rushed out to be at his son’s side immediately. Daphne Seaman remained in the stands, frozen in terror.
“I just started praying,” she said. “This lady in the crowd came down and said, ‘Can I pray with you?’”
It took a while for emergency medical personnel to get there, but Seaman was eventually strapped to the gurney and taken to the UK Medical Center. His self-diagnosis was on the mark — a compression fracture of the T11 and T12 vertebrae. Fortunately, the ligaments in his back held his spine together, preventing nerve damage. Prognosis: Six months before he’d be able to begin exercising again.
Compounding matters, his badly sprained ankle would keep Seaman — a bundle of nervous energy — confined to a wheelchair for two months.
“You don’t really realize how long (two months) is until the first full day of being in a wheelchair,” he said.
What really made it tough for Seaman was knowing his teammates were heading to New York the next week for a meet.
“The biggest emotional pain was not when my parents came to the hospital, but when my teammates walked in,” he said. “All I could think was, ‘He gets to jump and I don’t.’”
Bardstown track coach Tom Williams spoke to Seaman the night of the injury.
“You could tell he was very disappointed and was going to do whatever it took to come back,” Williams said. “He told me, ‘Coach, I’ll be back in six weeks.’”
Seaman was eventually released from the hospital and spent some time at home recuperating.
“My mom nursed me,” Seaman said. “I couldn’t walk around.”
Seaman defied doctors’ orders as soon as he got home, hobbling to bed and the bathroom on his own.
“There was no sharp pain,” he said. “I’m not sure if it was from the painkillers.”
After a few days at home, Michael and his mother headed back to Knoxville to continue his recovery and meet with a spinal specialist. The care of UT athletic trainer Adrian Dunn was enlisted.
“Our trainer put in a lot of extra hours — it was great,” Seaman said. Dunn usually would go to work at 10 a.m., but insisted on coming in two hours early before Seaman had to go to class to work on his ankle and back. Two more hours of rehab came in the afternoons.
About two weeks after his fall, Seaman was up and walking around with a heavy boot on his ankle, and his mind turned to thoughts of competing again. After sitting out 2008 as a redshirt to work on his form, missing another season was too much to bear.
“I pushed it,” he said. “I just wanted to get back so bad.”
There was still a lot of swelling on the ankle, but “(Dunn) really worked to get it out of there,” Seaman said, and taped it up.
Seaman did some light jogging to test the ankle, and that eventually turned into some sprinting toward the end of the day.
Over the next four weeks, Seaman and Dunn spent so much time together in rehabilitation, they became good friends. Eventually, Seaman’s condition improved enough to the point where doctors cleared him to resume jumping.
“Everything was coming fast,” he said. “I kind of knew I’d come back sooner” than expected.
Daphne Seaman said her son’s quick recovery was an “answer to a prayer,” in conjunction with good medical care by Dunn and others, as well as her son’s strong will.
Still, UT track coach Bill Webb was cautioning Seaman to take a slow, measured approach in the form of a five-step plan over the course of five weeks.
Seaman had other plans, and started doing some pole drills in practice, out of the watchful eye of his coach. Just six weeks after his injury, he went for a short run and planted his pole and rode it through onto the mat.
“I didn’t feel any pressure on my back,” Seaman said. “I was kind of surprised, because I did feel a little bit of pain.”
Not enough to prevent him from going one step further and trying a full vault, however.
“I finally just went for it, went through the jump, and felt great,” he said.
His teammates celebrated wildly. Webb, naturally, was upset.
Williams wasn’t surprised at his former athlete’s speedy recovery, however.
“That’s Michael. … He was one of the most competitive individuals I’ve seen,” Williams said. He said during high school, Seaman regularly sought out instruction from as many places as he could find it, and practiced his craft incessantly.
“He’s going to rise to the top because of his hard work and dedication,” Williams said.
Seaman has remained connected to the high school where he won the 2006 and 2007 Class 1A state pole vault championship. He worked extensively with 2008 champ Matt Case and “has spawned a whole new group of vaulters,” Williams said.
J.P. Willett, a junior, hopes to extend Bardstown’s streak of individual pole vault state champions to four.
“We went down (to Knoxville) this past Sunday” to work out with Seaman, Willett said. “He’s been teaching us everything we know. He’s basically the best coach we could ask for.”
Seaman doesn’t feel 100 percent yet, but his results wouldn’t indicate it. He’s exceeded personal bests on several occasions and qualified for the National College Regionals after clearing 16-07 at the Penn Relays two weeks ago.
He said his teammates were a big motivator, and his support structure has been wonderful.
“I keep telling everyone how lucky I was,” Seaman said. “I kept telling everybody I had some ‘Jesus-healing.’”
That his injury occurred at UK, where he has spent so much time training over the years, is “very ironic,” he said.
Daphne Seaman is thrilled her son is back doing what he loves, and feels “blessed.” But that doesn’t make seeing her son compete any easier.
“I still get the heebie-jeebies watching him,” she said.
Now 5.20 @ SEC's and Regionals would be a nice end to this story...........