A master electrician for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival who was paralyzed from the chest down by a bicycle crash in 2003 is back on the road — on a low-slung, three-wheel bicycle powered by his arms.
Michael Maag, 45, was training for a 100-mile bicycle race Aug. 3, 2003, on Highway 66 by Emigrant Lake when he was hit by a car and sent through the windshield, crushing two thoracic vertebrae and severely injuring his left leg. He was in critical condition for two weeks and in the hospital for 68 days. He nearly lost his leg, but surgeons were able to save it with a titanium rod.
Today he's training for the California International Marathon Dec. 6, a follow-up to the Portland Marathon last year.
For Maag, marathons are "not to prove anything, but to do it."
"I love being out here with the wind in my hair, hearing the songbirds," he said. "It's essential to my being."
At first, in physical therapy, it looked as if Maag would be able to walk on crutches, but growing scar tissue on the spine completed his paralysis.
The festival installed ramps and an elevator for easier access for Maag's wheelchair, and his crew of seven quickly accommodated to his new abilities, he said.
The festival also held a benefit performance of the 2003 season's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for Maag. OSF is a self-insurer and has handled much of the considerable medical bill, which Maag estimated at $750,000.
In a hospital in Denver, where he underwent surgery to remove scar tissue, Maag found himself in the company of paraplegics and quadriplegics in much worse shape than he was — an experience that left him understanding how deep in human nature is the will to live.
"People tell me how fantastic it is, what I'm doing, and some say in my place they'd sit home and watch TV," Maag said. "But no, you wouldn't. We humans fight to live the best way we can. I see that so often. Everyone is fighting that fight. No one is giving up."
Although Maag has chronic neuropathic pain, which feels like "bright, hot water" in his legs, cycling has offered him a path to participation in the outside world he has loved all his life.
"It's absolutely essential for me to have this freedom," he said. "You can get in a trap after an accident and stay close to home, not see much of the world.
"The freedom of the hand-cycle — I can get out to Central Point and disappear as long as I want on the back roads."
Maag's bike is emblazoned with The Hammer of Thor, a symbol in Norse mythology of the thunder god's most powerful weapon, capable of leveling mountains and shooting lightning bolts. Maag has used the symbol throughout his life as a sign of strength.
Before the accident, Maag and his wife of 17 years, Gwen Turos, a triathlete and OSF stage manager, did many bicycling events together. After the crash, she stood by him, helping equip their home with ramps and lower counters so he could continue his love of cooking. She painted "Thor's Hammer" on the side of his three-wheeler and even got a tattoo of Thor on her chest.
"It's been a real interesting and challenging road," said Maag, about to take off on the Bear Creek Greenway from Ashland to Phoenix and back on a sunny fall afternoon.
"I feel so completely blessed by the festival. They're family. "¦ It's been fantastic," he said. "And there's no way I could have done it without Gwen. She's been there in every way possible. A lesser person would have taken the easy road and left.
"We would have been all over the world (in athletic events), but all that changed and went away. She's been the person to push me up the hill and get me started. "¦ She loves me. I'm the luckiest guy in the world."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.