BRADENTON — Mill Creek resident Mike Whitehead isn’t one to shy away from a challenge.
A natural athlete, Whitehead is constantly pushing himself to the limit, both physically and mentally.
“Sports always played a huge role in my day-to-day life,” Whitehead says. “It’s both a blessing and a curse to be ultra competitive.”
But it wasn’t until a car accident left Whitehead a quadriplegic 13 years ago that his competitive nature was put to the ultimate test.
At the time, Whitehead had a choice to make. He could sit back and watch the world go by without him, or he could embrace his new life and use his competitive spirit to his advantage.
Whitehead chose the latter.
He joined a local Canadian wheelchair rugby team and never looked back.
Whitehead has spent the past 11 years playing for Team Canada’s wheelchair rugby team; and Aug. 29 through Sept. 9, Whitehead competed in his third Paralympic Games in London, where he won his second silver medal.
In front of 12,000 fans, including his wife, Kerri, and daughters Addison, 8, and Avary, 5, Whitehead lead Team Canada past the United States, the reigning Paralympic champion, in the semifinals to advance to the finals in which they finished second to Australia.
“These past four years, I’ve worked harder at (watching) my nutrition, putting in the training and resting,” Whitehead says. “In 2008, I felt the pressure, and I made a big mistake. This Olympics, I felt like we were able to redeem ourselves in some way.”
A native of Harrow, Ontario, Whitehead grew up surrounded by sports. His father played hockey, baseball and golf, and it didn’t take long for Whitehead to get in on the action.
He learned how to play basketball at a young age and continued to excel at the sport. He played basketball throughout high school, during which he also played hockey.
Whitehead continued playing recreational sports upon graduation, but that all came to a halt for about eight weeks in 1999.
Whitehead was in a car accident and suffered a C67 spinal-cord injury. He was 24 years old. He spent four weeks in intensive care while doctors stabilized his neck. The injury left Whitehead a quadriplegic.
Whitehead spent the next two weeks overcome with emotion as he tried to deal with his new reality. It wasn’t until Jan. 1, 2000 — his first day of spinal-cord rehabilitation — that Whitehead realized he had a choice to make. He could shy away from the outside world or he could embrace his new surroundings.
“At the time, you think your life is over,” Whitehead says. “Once you make a choice to move on, you’re so much better off. Life is so much more exciting. It’s beyond bright. Doors open every day for me now. You just have to keep opening up more doors.”
While attending rehab, a couple of guys from the local wheelchair rugby team came to the hospital to talk to Whitehead. They encouraged him to stay positive and recognize that injuries don’t define who you are. You can still play sports and do the things you love. You just have to go about it a different way.
Whitehead, who knew nothing about rugby at the time, took the advice to heart. After undergoing four months of rehab, Whitehead left the hospital April 1, 2000. At that point, Whitehead joined the local wheelchair rugby team. Physically, it took Whitehead, who had lost 60 pounds in the hospital, awhile to adjust to the speed and strength of the game.
In summer 2000, one of Whitehead’s teammates participated in the Paralympic Games in Sydney. After seeing the gift bag packed full of clothes, gift and accessories that his teammate received, Whitehead decided he, too, wanted to represent Canada.
In 2001, Whitehead was named to Team Canada’s wheelchair rugby team. Although, it wasn’t until Whitehead was listening to music on the drive home that the news finally began to sink in.
“It’s really funny because you have to be cool about it,” Whitehead says. “It wasn’t until later that I thought, ‘You just did this. You’re going to the next world championships. Oh, wow, this is really amazing!’ Those moments just kind of happen where it finally sinks in forever.”
Since then, the three-time Paralympian, who plays what would be considered a point guard position on the court, has won two silver medals and a bronze medal in wheelchair rugby.
“I love hanging out with the guys,” Whitehead says. “I love the camaraderie; pushing myself physically and mentally; and just getting to represent your country and getting paid as a professional athlete.
“I love having the ability to knock someone out of the wheelchair and getting rewarded for it,” Whitehead says with a laugh.
Whitehead moved in 2005 to Mill Creek after his wife got a job in St. Petersburg. Shortly thereafter, Whitehead began playing with the Sarasota wheelchair rugby team, which has since folded.
Now, when he’s not playing wheelchair rugby, Whitehead plays wheelchair basketball at All People’s Gym, in Tampa. He’ll begin his third season this year.
“Wheelchair rugby was designed for quadriplegics, so it suited me right away,” Whitehead says. “It was what was introduced to me right away and what was fun. I started playing wheelchair basketball; and I’m so in love with (the sport), but I’m a rugby player.”
Following the 2012 Paralympic Games, Whitehead took some time off to rest and recover from the pressure and excitement of Paralympic competition.
Now, Whitehead will focus on weight-training sessions in the morning and afternoons and playing wheelchair basketball until Team Canada reconvenes on the court for competition at the beginning of the year.
“I knew I was going to do something fun and be happy,” Whitehead says. “It kind of changes (you). It’s just a real, true honor. I grew up in a humble country, and it’s just an honor to be a part of that.
“It’s a rollercoaster,” Whitehead says. “We have so much fun. I don’t plan on leaving (any time soon).”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].