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Cornelius racer credits Boston Marathon for second chance at speed and freedom

My first wheelchair Boston finish 1994
Courtesy of Michael Savicki
Mike Savicki races to the finish line in his first Boston Marathon in a wheelchair in 1994.

The first time 54-year-old Mike Savicki ran the Boston Marathon, it wasn’t planned. The year was 1989. He was a junior at Tufts University. He lived with a group of guys, all egging each other on to run the marathon. Savicki was on the varsity soccer team and involved in the Navy ROTC program.

"We dared each other," Savicki said recently with a smile on his face. "'Hey, what do you want to do tomorrow? Well, let's go run the marathon.' So we decided the night before the marathon to try it, and we ran it as bandits."

"Bandits" are runners who did not qualify or register for the marathon but jump into the race after it’s started. Historically, it’s a practice the marathon has tolerated. Savicki already had a love for running growing up. But completing the marathon lit a fire in him.

So much so that he did it again the following year. He still ran as a bandit, but this time he trained and ran a half hour faster.

"When I finished, I'm like, 'OK, I'm in a good spot now,'" he said. "And it turns out it was the last race I ever ran on my two feet."

After his second Boston Marathon, Savicki was commissioned as a naval officer and moved to Pensacola, Florida, where he began his training to become a pilot — a dream job of his inspired by the Tom Cruise movie "Top Gun."

Courtesy of Michael Savicki
As a young man, Savicki dreamed of being a jet pilot for the Navy.

"The 'Top Gun' students flew F-14s, and that's what I wanted to fly — the Tomcat," he said. "That was the fighter jet of the time. The first jet that I ever flew was an A-4, and I flew it with an instructor. We probably went close to the speed of sound."

He was at his peak physically, young, had his whole life in front of him. And then everything changed.

"I was with some guys in my training squadron. I walked into the water up to about my waist and I went to dive under a wave that was coming in," he said. "The wave broke and pushed my head down, and I hit my head on the bottom. And it cracked two vertebrae, the C6 and the C7 vertebrae, in my neck."

Instantly, he was paralyzed, but he didn’t know it at the time.

"All of a sudden I went from thinking, 'How am I going to catch up with the people I'm swimming with?' to 'How am I not going to drown? How am I not going to die?'"

He was able to turn his body and float. His group eventually looked back and saw he was in trouble and helped him get back to the beach. He was flown to a hospital. His doctor diagnosed him quickly:He would never walk again. Savicki says he’s a quadriplegic with impairment in all four limbs and is paralyzed from the chest down.

"I remember saying to the doctor, 'Well, how am I going to live? Like, What am I going to do?' He said, 'You're going to be able to live a perfectly normal life. You're not going to be able to walk and you're going to have to do it from a wheelchair,'" he said. "I'm the guy who is going to fly the speed of sound, not push through life in a wheelchair."

Savicki learned to drive again, with hand controls. He married and become a father. And he learned how to compete in marathons again.

Heartbreak Hill 2019
Courtesy Michael Savicki
Savicki punches his wheels to gain speed.

In his home garage he pointed to his racing chair. It’s lighter than it looks, easily picked up with one hand. Its white frame is delicate yet strong and aerodynamic.

"So I'm basically kneeling and leaning forward," he said. "Instead of grabbing the wheels, I punch them in a really efficient motion. All my energy is transformed into pushing the chair forward."

Spare tires hang. A U.S. Navy flag is pinned to one wall. So are a string of colorful Tibetan prayer flags. A bulletin board in one corner is packed full of magazine cut-outs of athletes Savicki admires. This is clearly a room of inspiration and dedication.

But there were many dark days before he reached those accomplishments, he said — days when depression and grief for what he thought his life was going to be were all-consuming.

What kept him going is the same thing that had his whole life.

"I got interested and reinvolved in sports during rehabilitation," he said. "And to be completely honest, that's what saved my life."

Savicki remembers meeting the legionary Bob Hall while he was in rehab. In 1975, Hall became the first officially recognized participant to complete the Boston Marathon course in a wheelchair.

"He said, 'You know, you are an athlete before; you can be an athlete again,'" he said. "'If you ever want to try wheelchair racing, come by my shop and I'll give you a wheelchair to try out.'"

Eventually, Savicki took Hall up on that offer, and he rediscovered racing.

"That’s when I discovered speed again and racing. Something that was taken away from me can come back a little bit differently and I can have fun," he said. "And that's when my life started to change."

And in 1994, Savicki made his way back to the Boston Marathon — this time as an official competitor. This bandit days were over.

He remembers the speed he felt that day, the freedom, the crowd cheering him on.

"It made me feel like I was in a jet," he said. "It made me feel like I wanted to feel when I was flying. I had that feeling all over again."

There have been some years life got in the way — family, his job, or a health problem — that kept him from the competition. In 2020, the race was virtual but he was determined to compete. He remembers getting in his racing chair before the sun came up. He remembers some strange looks from neighbors as he raced around the same streets of Cornelius over and over.

"I started that little virtual race myself, and then finished alone and then, you know, went back in and joined my wife and daughter," he said. "Like, it was a regular day, but in the back of my mind, I thought, 'Hey, I just did a Boston Marathon.'"

He still felt the same feelings racing usually brought him — freedom and a sense of accomplishment. But it was different without the energy of the crowd and the comradery of fellow racers. In 2021, he had to drop out of the competition due to an injury.

"Sitting in a wheelchair is not what the human body was made for," he said. "I got a pressure sore on my back from sitting and from being in the racing chair and training and not being aware of the signals my body was sending me."

So in many ways, this year’s race is like a homecoming for Savicki.

"I'm bringing some nervousness with me now because I haven't been there in a few years," he said. "Most of us haven't been where we were before the pandemic hit. We haven't been back there yet."

But as the world moves forward, he hopes to move back to a familiar place. A place that has continuously pushed him from the very first time he stepped on it decades ago, a place that he owes his life to in some ways — the Boston Marathon starting line.

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Sarah Delia is a Senior Producer for Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.