Editor’s note: This article was originally published April 25, 2014
Nate Aikele was flying toward the finish line in the last lap of a cycling race at The Driveway in East Austin on April 10 when he glanced over his shoulder to see how far ahead he was of the other racers.
In a flash, he veered off the winding, paved course and crashed into a tree.
Aikele, 30, a podiatry student from Midwestern University in Phoenix who was working a clinical rotation in San Antonio, broke his back, crushed several vertebrae and severed his spinal cord. He underwent surgery at University Medical Center Brackenridge, where surgeons used bones from his pelvis to reconstruct parts of his spine.
He is paralyzed from the chest down.
Aikele was just seven weeks away from graduating when the accident occurred. After graduation, he had planned to complete a residency in podiatric medicine and surgery at North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley, Colorado.
Instead, he will fly today to the University of Washington Rehabilitation Clinic, where he’ll undergo more therapy.
Aikele says he still hopes to participate in graduation on May 28, but will have to make up seven weeks of clinical rotations during the summer. The hospital in Colorado has agreed to delay his residency until 2015 so he can focus on rehabilitation first.
"The fourth year of podiatry school is incredibly difficult," he said Thursday. "You’re auditioning at different residency programs each month, moving around the country, then you start a stressful interview process to match into a residency program you hope you will enjoy. During that year I did everything I could to make sure things went my way. I put faith in God that things would work out the way He wanted them to. As I piece things together now I realize I can still be a podiatrist, I can make it through this no matter what function I get back or if I’m stuck in a wheelchair. My goals aren’t going to be inhibited … I can’t see something like this ever holding me back."
During his stay at Brackenridge, Aikele got an impromptu visit from cyclist Lance Armstrong, who dropped by for a 45-minute chat. Armstrong agreed to sign 50 photos that will be given to those who donate to a fund set up to offset Aikele’s medical bills. For more information go to www.fundly.com/nate-for-the-win.
Aikele started bike racing in 2011.
"He is definitely talented," said his coach, Austin cyclist Stefan Rothe of Rothe Training. "He was a Category 3 racer - pretty good and slowly moving up through the ranks … and he’s one of the most positive people I’ve met."
Aikele is a former missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.