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Snowboarder Josh Wood: How To Survive A Broken Neck, A Broken Marriage & Life As A Single Dad

Luke BenedictusBy Luke Benedictus.
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Josh Wood broke his neck in a snowboarding accident when he was 18. He became an instant quadriplegic and doctors vowed he would never walk again. But Josh refused to accept it. Instead he defied medical opinion with a miracle recovery powered by self-will and bloody-minded determination.

Twenty years on, Josh has another challenge on his hands. Since his marriage broke-up, he’s learning to make life work as a single dad with a disability and a three-year-old son. Here’s what the 38-year-old has learned about resilience, fatherhood and refusing to let misfortune define your life.

When I was 18 I was chasing the snowboard dream and wanted to be a professional. There was this big jump over the road in Mt Buller that no one had ever done. I felt like if I could do it then it would catapult my career forward. Plus, I just wanted to do it, too. Back then I loved doing stuff that scared the shit out of me and then coming out the other side.

With jumps there’s always a point of no return. It’s like this invisible line. If you go past that line then you’re committed to the jump. But what I often used to do was come close to that line and then pull out, get all angry and psych myself up to go again and complete it. But this time I was like, “First go, I’ll be totally committed.”

As soon as the nose of my board went over that invisible line I realised I was in big trouble. The ramp was too short, too steep. It threw me on the back of my heels and spun me upside down. I remember looking at the road and thinking, “I’m going to hit the road. Just try and land on your arms and legs.”

I hit the road with my head. And I remember hearing my neck crush on my chin and then the back of my head bouncing back between my shoulder blades. And that’s when I heard a noise like a shotgun going off in my neck and feeling the snap. Then it was just all silence.

They weren’t sure if I’d survive because I was so badly injured. I was completely paralysed. When the doctors came in they were very blunt with me. They said: “You’ll never walk again. This is your life now.”

I told my mum: “I don’t want to live any more. You’ve got to help me to kill myself.”

But my mum had just done some Anthony Robbins course so she thought she could take on the world. So then in my head I was like, “OK, I’ll just get better to the point where I can do it myself, because mum is not going to help me kill myself.”

From that moment, every time the doctor said I couldn’t do something, I was like, “Fuck it, I’m going to do it!” I had no clue how I’d manage that. All I knew is that I had to get outside help because the doctors weren’t in my corner.

At first, I just focused on moving my hand to scratch my nose. After that I just focused on moving my big toe. Both of those things literally took me weeks to do.

I then had to learn how to adapt and use different muscle groups. I had all these photos on the hospital wall of me snowboarding or walking or standing. The doctors were like, “Why have you got those up? They’re taking up room.” But I told them: “They’re making sure my mind never forgets.”

I’ve never had any suicidal tendencies since that moment at the start. But I often remind myself that I could have ended it and then I wouldn’t be where I am now. I think that’s why I’m so grateful for everything. And I’m especially grateful for AJ, my son. He gives me more than I could ever have from anyone.

I felt like I did everything I could to keep my marriage together. I honestly gave it my best shot. So while it was brutal when it finally ended, at least I didn’t have any regrets in that department. I didn’t have any regrets that I could have done more.

The hardest thing about my break-up was not being able to see AJ every day. That really cooked me. Each day I’d wake up without him I was like: “I’m missing out on a day with my son!” But you can’t think like that. I realised I’ve got to make sure that when I do have my son, we just enjoy that time together. As a single dad, you’ve got to try to live in the moment with your kids when you’ve got them.

And I also believe that if my marriage hadn’t ended, my bond with my son would never be as strong as it is. Now I appreciate every day that I have with him. It didn’t take the break-up for me to figure out how much he meant to me. But having that alone time gave us a deeper bond.

My injury has influenced the sort of dad that I am today. I’m more grateful. I can’t ride a normal bike any more, but I’ve got an electric bike that I can follow AJ on around the BMX track. I try not to focus on what I can’t do with him, but concentrate on what I can.

One of the reasons I quit my job as an earth-mover is that after the break-up, I only had AJ for half the week. But doing that job with my condition after the injury left me so exhausted. Suddenly, I found that on Saturdays I was so buggered that I’d just wind up sitting on the couch while AJ was on his iPad. I wasn’t doing anything with him. That’s when I started thinking: “OK, things need to change.”

Since I gave up my job, I take AJ to skateparks and BMX tracks all the time. Quitting my job was a risk, but then life is full of risks. And you always have more choice then you think. If you don’t like an aspect of your life then you can change it. It’s not always about quitting either – it’s about reassessing what’s really important to you.

Now I’m living on my pension and my speaking gigs. So that is tough at times. But kids don’t need money, what kids really need is your time.

When it comes to BMX and skating, AJ is way more naturally gifted than I ever was. The problem with sport is that there’s always risk. So I always teach him never to get complacent. I encourage AJ to have fear – you need to have fear. But I also know that he’ll crash and, although you want to protect your kids, I’m aware that I have to let him crash so he can learn from that. Your fears as a parent can sometimes instill greater fears in your kids.

But it’s not like I’m old school, either. I want AJ to be able to cry. I want him to know that it’s okay to be sad. I want him to show emotion.

Sometimes I look at my life with the accident and my marriage and think: “Wow, I just keep getting slammed“. It does get me down sometimes. But then I’m constantly reminded about there’s always someone worse off. That’s a philosophy that I want to instil in my son.

Most of all I want AJ to know that he’s loved, that he is always safe, and he can always show his emotions. I want me and his mother to get along the best we can. That’s going to take time. But we’re always amicable around AJ and we’re just going to keep trying.

All Pictures From @joshwoody Instagram