Fying over fields and meadows in a three wheeler or a go cart is the stuff of every little boy’s dream. Michael McKeller lived that dream. As a child, his playground was a 20 acre spread just outside the small southern town of Athens, Georgia. From the time he was old enough to walk, his older brother Mark’s pack of friends and their love of outdoor adventure was a lure that drew and caught him, taking him beyond the walls, abandoning the very idea of limits. Overcoming his limitations to walk or swim, Extreme Mike has scuba dived, sky dived, bungie jumped and did what many “normal” people only dreamed of doing.
Michael’s childhood might sound like that of a typical American boy with a great back yard, but Michael is anything but typical. Before Michael had ever hit those fields to play, his parents had noticed that he wasn’t growing like other boys, learning to walk well enough to keep up with his friends, or moving his limbs normally. They sought out the finest physicians in the country from Emory University to the Mayo Clinic to find out why. By the time Michael was three, the doctors had ruled out Muscular Dystrophy and Multiple Sclerosis and a host of other conditions they had thought might be the cause and in the end could not give Michael’s parents a complete answer. They called Michael’s affliction Spinal Muscular Atrophy and told them there was no treatment, no cure. They barely knew what it was much less how it worked or what to do to stop it. And so the McKellers took their son home to run and play in the fields, knowing that Michael’s physical development would not be typical or his childhood average. But they also knew their son had an extraordinary spirit. It would be the only difference they focused on and prove to be the only one that mattered.
To Michael, his brother Mark and their buddies…the diagnosis didn’t change a thing. The world was still their sandbox and they were digging to China. No one in Michael’s circle of family and friends treated him as if he had a disability. Though his walk was not as strong as the rest of the gang or quite as upright, they proceeded as if all were equal. Through those relationships Michael developed a sense that he was only different if he chose to see it that way. But there were boundaries…his own physical limitations…the sparks that started the fire in his soul. The wind that fanned the flame came in many forms. There was the simple fact that he wanted to do what all his buddies were doing. Then there were those who didn’t know him very well who would say to his parents…”You can’t let Michael do that, don’t let him hurt himself. He can’t do this, he can’t do that.”
The echoes permeated the community around him and the more he heard them…the more determined he became to prove them wrong. Then there was a safety net of guidelines his parents tried to enforce, but to no avail. Unfortunately, Michael refused to accept those guidelines and drove right through the net most of the time. He broke more bones in his childhood than he can remember. Through the late sixties and early seventies, as his pals grew and their adventures got bolder, Michael simply kept adjusting. Ironically, his own parent’s words fueled his burning drive, “They taught me, ingrained in me, that if you really want to do something, figure out how to do it and do it.” And so he did…over and over and over again…until he believed there was nothing he couldn’t figure out how to do if he wanted it badly enough. It became the theme that would carry him through the darkest days of his life. The days that proved that life for Michael hadn’t even met up with the hard part yet. Eventually the boys got bigger, and so did their toys. All terrain vehicles became their favorite mode of transportation…flipping around and flying over the ground. Anything to take them higher, faster, further. But then there was one more, one for Michael that he hadn’t bargained for…a power wheel chair. Curvature of the spine, or scoliosis, had begun its twist on Michael’s fate before he could reach his teens and, though for a while he could continue walking with the help of a brace, eventually he had to turn to the chair for mobility. Miraculously through it all he remained an over achiever and at the age of thirteen, Michael was an avid swimmer, a wrestler, still played dodge ball, lifted weights and had just begun to play the drums for what he hoped would become a lifetime filled with music. But there was other music he would have to face first. Michael had a choice; he would either have to accept the brace and the excruciating pain of scoliosis until it beat him further down or take an option the doctors offered that was to surgically insert a steel rod to straighten his spine. The decision he made would ultimately bring him to the most traumatic moment in his life. On a Tuesday morning in Athens, Georgia in 1980, Michael woke up in his bed on what was to be a normal school day and couldn’t move his arms or legs. It was two weeks after a surgery that split him open down the back, from just under his neck to his tail bone to insert the rod that was to be an answer to abate the pain of his scoliosis. He had returned home and, except for a lack of energy and some weight loss, had continued his life normally and begun to heal.
Now the healing was to take another course and Michael’s life would never be the same. To this day, the doctors cannot tell Michael what happened. Again; no answers. They offered him another choice. They could go back in and remove the rod or Michael could learn to live and work with what his body had become. Another surgery to remove the rod was an extremely risky option with a minimal chance that it would help and a possibility that he might die. He weighed the decision like all the others that had come before. In the end, he decided that the life that he had was too precious and he would rather keep what he’d been dealt—he could figure out how to work with that—after all, he was an expert at adjustment. The darkest days followed that decision as he came to realize he might never have use of his arms or legs again, but he woke up every day and willed himself to face it.
Daily physical therapy ensued and one day he felt a twinge in a muscle in his arm. His mind was suddenly wild with the possibilities and he said to his therapist, “I can get it back. If I can feel that, I can get it all back.” In one single, solitary moment of confrontation with his own soul, Michael decided that he would do battle with his own physical reality. “If all you can do is say, okay…this is the set of strengths that I have, this is what I have to work with and this is what I can do to move forward, then you have to do it.” He fought his desires to accept help and turned his family’s offers of assistance away. He used the theme that had served him well through childhood and forced himself to learn all over again, how to eat, how to put on socks, how to survive…one task at a time. He figured out how. He took on the challenge of rebuilding his own freedom with a mantra that he recited in the mirror every day, “Today is a bad day but it’s better than yesterday, and it’s going to get better tomorrow.” It took Michael a year to learn to feed himself again and four years to regain 40% of what he had lost but his efforts bought him complete independence. He reached a plateau then and remains on a par with that physical level of ability today. Though his power wheel chair is still his way of getting around, he views his whole journey as “just something that happened. No different than being in a car wreck or another serious trauma. It’s tough–you never invite that kind of thing but if you dwell on it, it’s not going to get any better,” says Michael. “Do everything you can to overcome.” Michael’s life today is a far cry from dwelling on his physical ordeal. In fact, it has more than gotten better. He stayed on course with his education through it all and even became a National Honor Society member. He graduated from high school tenth in his class even while he was still trying to figure out just how to turn pages. He then took advanced placement exams and excelled to the point that he exempted one year of a four-and-a-quarter year degree in finance from the University of Georgia Business School where he attended on a partial scholarship.
Like the rest of us, from there he took a few jobs and tried a business or two of his own. Perhaps unlike most of the rest of us he continues to pursue his passion for adventure. In the last ten years alone Michael has taught himself how to swim again, earned his SCUBA certification, ridden in a stunt plane, flown an ultra light plane, ridden in an airboat in the dark of night on a Louisiana bayou, driven a wave runner, gone shark fishing, completed his first sky dive and founded Extreme Mike Enterprises. Now Michael’s playground is a bit bigger. There are mountains to climb, oceans to explore, and rivers to travel. Mike’s mission is to teach where he once had to learn: that in the confrontation with your very survival you can only consult yourself, arm yourself with the best information you can get, and make the best out of what fate has brought you.
By researching, challenging and conquering new and bolder extreme activities Michael hopes to continue to enrich his life by challenging his own fears. In the process he would like to communicate what he goes through. His mission is to encourage others how to think outside of their own box to experience some of the same.