Paraplegic chases challenges high and low with dedication

SMITHVILLE – As a teenager, Michael Mills’ level of athleticism weighed more to popping ollies on a skateboard than running Hail Marys on a football field. Twenty years later, he’s pushing his body to limits five-star recruits and X-game athletes don’t, especially considering a head-on collision with a drunk driver took away the use of his legs.

COURTESY PHOTO Michael Mills climbs Stone Mountain in Georgia as part of a string of personal challenges he looks to overcome during the first half of the year.

COURTESY PHOTO
Michael Mills climbs Stone Mountain in Georgia as part of a string of personal challenges he looks to overcome during the first half of the year.

Since the 1993 accident, the T12 paraplegic has gone on to compete internationally and in nearly every state in 150 professional wheelchair races. That thrill is still there, but he never found content in just whipping a wheelchair around road courses. Saturday, he’ll crawl through mud under barbed wire, climb ropes and be subjected to rigorous challenges through four miles of Georgia’s Spartan Race, for the most part on his hands and knees.
“I once told my dad that I wanted to be different. He’d told me with a serious face to be careful what I ask for. Two weeks later, I was paralyzed. After I got out of my coma, he told me I got my wish,” said Mills, who graduated in 1995 from Hatley High School.
Rather than letting his disability destroy the life he took 16 years to build, Mills saw it as a second chance for a long life ahead.
“I learned how to dress myself and transfer from a chair to the bed in the hospital. After that I had to adapt to how to deal with people staring at me. It took me six months to a year to really adjust to my new mindset.
If there was a challenge, I found some way to do it or at least get around it. Being paralyzed was never hard. It was something I was given to see how I could react,” Mills said.
After seeing competitive wheelchair racing on TV, Mills found his first athletic outlet by way of ‘an ugly purple wheelchair’ and a pair of baseball gloves wrapped in duct tape.
Dozens of races, nearly 17 years and a move to metro-Atlanta later, Mills found his next challenge after seeing images of other paraplegics competing in obstacle course challenges.
It took one person doubting him and another one supporting his desire on Facebook to complete in the Spartan Race to fast-track the last several months’ worth of dedication for Mills and a team of locals.

Courtesy photo Michael Mills has trained extensively for the past several months in preparation of Saturday's Spartan Race in Georgia, where the Smithville native will be joined with a team of several Monroe County residents.

Courtesy photo
Michael Mills has trained extensively for the past several months in preparation of Saturday’s Spartan Race in Georgia, where the Smithville native will be joined with a team of several Monroe County residents.

“Michael and I are tight so I told him I’d carry him through anything he couldn’t do. He threw that out to Spartan and they emailed him back saying they want to see what he has. We’re were both like, ‘Oh Crap,'” said Amory native Kevin Patterson.
The two will be joined with fellow Monroe Countians Joel Outlaw, Brandon Odom, Nathan Steele and April Riley Cook.
“I wanted to build a team of people who were part of my family and that’s what these people are. I grew up with so many of them and having them beside me will be my drive,” Mills said.
“I never did any kind of running until I started training for Spartan. I’ve lost roughly 45 pounds since last summer and my knees stopped hurting. I don’t see myself becoming an awesome racer, but I don’t see me getting back to 200 pounds either.
“Outside of the fitness, this is going to help me know there’s nothing I can’t do. If a T12 paraplegic can climb over a nine foot wall or to the top of a mountain, there is no reason to doubt myself in doing anything,” Patterson said.
A film crew from Spartan TV will chronicle Saturday’s run. Atlanta’s NBC 11 followed Mills’ Feb. 9 climb on his hands and knees to the top of Stone Mountain, where 50 people were waiting to clap him on at the peak, and CNN will follow him when he takes on the GORUCK Challenge in May, a 12-hour Special Forces-type training. Spartan TV has also filmed a short documentary called, “A Day in the Life of Michael Mills.”
His participation in the GORUCK Challenge will be the first time since the event began in 2010 that a paraplegic has entered.
“I’m not doing this to be popular. I’m doing this to make a difference. I’ve could’ve still been living in Smithville letting this disability take the best of me. I’m just a normal guy, but if it inspires somebody to get off the couch then so be it,” Mills said.

Courtesy photo  A wave of obstacle course challenges is a trend sweeping the nation. A huge buzz surrounds Micheal Mills' entry to Saturday's Spartan Race in Georgia.

Courtesy photo
A wave of obstacle course challenges is a trend sweeping the nation. A huge buzz surrounds Micheal Mills’ entry to Saturday’s Spartan Race in Georgia.

In his own personal accomplishments, Mills views these challenges as ways to lengthen a life he loves with a wife and three children.
With the blessings from his adult life now and from when he was living under the roof of his parents, Mike and Lisa Mills, he is competing in Spartan Race also to raise funds for Atlanta-based charity Bert’s Big Adventure, which provides all expense paid trips to Walt Disney World for children with chronic and terminal illnesses and their families.
“It’s part of my way of paying all the good I’ve received forward. I’m not stopping with Spartan to achieve my financial goal to support it. I’ll find something else where people can sponsor me,” Mills said.
Of all the items on Mills’ checklist, rallying for a special division for paralyzed people in obstacle course marathons like Spartan Race, Warrior Dash and Tough Mudder is Mills’ top goal now.
“I’m 36 and I’m just getting started. Whether it be climb a mountain or compete in a challenge, there are so many things I’m checking off right now. So many people go through life without setting goals and that’s disturbing to me. When I’m dead and gone, I want to say I got something started – not for the bragging rights, just to be a part of it,” Mills said.

To make a donation on behalf of Mills’ cause, go to http://www.crowdrise.com/ChasingSpartanMichaelMIlls.
Also, be looking for an upcoming Monroe Journal following up with Mills and his team after the Spartan Race.

Check out the video of Mill’s climb to the top of Stone Mountain at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0Dgrhiy1Yw.

About Ray Van Dusen

I've been with the Monroe Journal since Aug. 2009 as a staff writer, but took the role as news editor in late 2012. I'm always looking for interesting story ideas from around Monroe County. You can reach me via email at ray.vandusen@journalinc.com.

  • We can’t deny how a tragic accident can affect one’s life. It’s just inspiring how some people continue their lives despite of the tragedy and still look on the brighter side of life. It’s such an inspiration to hear Michael Mills story, I’ve learned a lot.