Unbroken: The John Cardiel Interview
Words: Alex Klein
“Next thing I know, I wake up in the hospital and can’t feel my legs. I was tripping. I was trying to move them but couldn’t do it. I was thinking that maybe I had a spinal tap or something, like maybe they did something to me that made me unable to feel my legs. But then I see Matt Rodriguez and my dad and Julien Stranger, and they’re like, ‘Dude, you’re f**ked up.’ I was like, ‘Oh, shit. I really can’t feel my legs. This is real.'” —John Cardiel
A little more than a year ago, one of skateboarding’s greats, John Cardiel, was seriously injured while on tour in Australia. The doctor’s prognosis was dire, and Cardiel was never expected to walk again. Today, Cardiel is not only walking, but he’s been cautiously cruising around on a skateboard. Here he talks about faith, rehabilitation and the strong will that has proved his doctors wrong and given him, and the rest of the skateboard community, hope.
How are you feeling?
I’m feeling good, man.
Are you still in pain?
Um, yeah. I got this weird nerve pain. It’s like pins and needles, like crazy pins and needles throughout my legs from the middle of my back down.
Do you feel it all the time?
Yeah. It’s just annoying. Sometimes it really hurts but, you know, it just depends.
I assume you’re doing a lot of rehab.
Yeah, I do it basically every day. Danny Way hooked me up with a doctor in San Diego. He gives me a program of things to do every day, like different exercises. Basically, I f**ked up my spinal cord hella bad, and I made some big-old scar tissue in it. It makes it hard for all the information from my brain to talk to my legs. I’m trying to do things that stress the communication lines in my spinal cord to make the communication happen. You understand what I’m saying? I gotta force the communication. If I can’t do something, I have to keep forcing it until I do it. But I have to do it the right way so it creates the right pathway.
What kind of stuff are you doing?
A lot of squats, just standing up and sitting down kind of thing, split stances and shit. I’m trying to get the core of my body back and working, too. All my stomach muscles, all my butt muscles are jacked up.
If normal is 100 percent, and you were previously at zero, how far along the road to recovery do you feel?
Right now, I don’t know, dude. Every day is a different struggle. I don’t know how far. I don’t even want to gauge it; I just want to ride it.
Can you remember your accident at all?
Not really. It’s kind of a blur.
What was it like waking up in the hospital?
Trippy, man. It was just a freak out. I just woke up and couldn’t feel my legs. I was tripping out. It’s like I was skating, hanging out with my friends, chilling. Then I guess I was running up, talking to these dudes on the side of a van. Then I just got spanked by this trailer. The van was carrying a trailer, and I fell down and the trailer ran over me. I didn’t even remember that happening; it was all super blurry. Next thing I know, I wake up in the hospital and can’t feel my legs. I was tripping. I was trying to move them but couldn’t do it. I was thinking that maybe I had a spinal tap or something, like maybe they did something to me that made me unable to feel my legs. But then I see Matt Rodriguez and my dad and Julien Stranger, and they’re like, “Dude, you’re f**ked up.” I was like, “Oh, shit. I really can’t feel my legs. This is real.”
How long did you stay in Australia?
After I got hurt? I think it was five months.
What was it like being there?
Just being stuck in the hospital, dealing with hospital people, not having my legs, just being vulnerable. I was in the hospital with all kinds of people who couldn’t move their arms or legs, like paraplegics and quadriplegics. They were telling me I’d never walk again, and I was seeing all these people who’d never move their arms again.
What kind of day-to-day difficulties did you encounter?
Just learning how to live in a wheelchair. Learning how to move from a bed to a wheelchair, basically trying to live my life as a paraplegic. I had to learn how to live: transferring from a bed to a wheelchair then transferring from a wheelchair to a bathroom seat or a shower seat. It was f**king insane.
But you’ve always been good at transfers.
Aw, dude, it’s a whole new transfer, dog. It’s a trip, man, learning all that stuff and just dealing. The craziest thing I remember going through was when I was in the hospital and it was at the acute stage. The doctors would come in at night, because you get bedsores if you don’t move your body, so they would come in late night and throw my legs around. My legs would hit the sides of the metal hospital bed and I couldn’t feel it. It was like my legs weren’t even parts of my body, just these things.
You must have been really sick of hospital food after five months.
Oh, yeah. That was bugged out. That’s one of the main reasons I was hyped on getting in the wheelchair; I could just bounce, do my thing.
What kind of prognosis were the doctors giving you for recovery? Did they say you’d never walk again?
Yeah, that’s what they told me. That’s what they told my family, too. They were just like, “Homeboy’s down; he’ll never walk again.” My dad and mom were just trying to break it down, like, “You might never walk again.” They were just trying to let me know. I was just like, “F**k that! There’s no way I won’t walk again! That’s just not possible!”
When did you make the decision to come home? What was the turning point?
When I was able to take care of myself. I was at the hospital in Australia going through rehabilitation, and they were teaching me how to live my life in a wheelchair. [I was waiting until] I could get on my own, able to handle myself, even getting on an airplane. I had to stay until I could pull it, until I could get home. A lot goes along with that, too, because it’s not just your legs that aren’t working. You can’t take a shit or a piss; your whole body’s just shut down. You gotta be able to regain those functions back or have ways to deal with them. The shit’s real, you know? Yeah, so the turning point was being able to stabilize myself enough so I could travel and mobilize on my own.
What was it like getting home? That must have been a nice feeling.
Yeah, dude. I was like, “Take me to La Cumbre, dude! I gotta get a burrito!”
Now you’re walking again, right?
Yeah, now I’m walking.
How does it feel?
Every day I’m trying. It feels good to be able to walk to the bathroom, just to walk and stuff. It’s taken a hell of a struggle to get where I’m at. I haven’t noticed, really, this one point, like, “I can walk now!” It’s just all part of it. There’s not one point where I could walk again. Even now it’s such a struggle. I still can’t call it walking, necessarily. You know what I’m saying?
Because it’s so difficult?
Yeah. My shit ain’t communicating 100 percent. I’m jacked, still. I’m trying to get better and working hella hard, but I’m still f**ked up.
But it sounds like you’ve made so much progress. They said you’d never walk again, but you did in a short period of time. I mean, the sky’s the limit to improvement.
Right. Well, that’s what I hope. They tell you that you get back what you get back. They can’t tell you, “In six months you’ll be healed.” I wish there was something [to tell me], “You’ll be fine in six months or in two years.” I’d be like, “Cool.” But it ain’t like that. It f**ks with your head.
How do you keep such a positive attitude?
I think it’s just faith. Just knowing that you’re gonna pull it. It’s like skating. If someone says, “You’re never gonna make that trick,” and you’re like, “I’m gonna make it,” you keep trying until you make it.
Have you stood on a skateboard yet?
Yeah, I’ve cruised around. I can bust nose wheelies and little manuals and stuff. I can’t ollie or nothing, but I can tic-tac around and do nose wheelies. I mean, I’m not doing tuck knee g-turns or nothing, but I can cruise and do little nose wheelies and shit. I tried to get on a mini-ramp the other day. I took a scrub, but I can kind of pump a little bit.
But after all that, even slamming must kind of feel good.
It feels so good, dude. It feels good to take a slam. A little masonite burn, a little scar, a little blood. You’re like, “God! I’m alive!” Yeah, it felt hella good.
I imagine you think about skating.
I’m all over it. I see so much more shit now. I just see everything now. I take nothing for granted. I’m like, “Oh, I could snap a little crack bump over that.” Just little crack hops, off roots and shit. I just vibe on everything. Just magazines and shit, I’m at Tower or the bookstore, reading through all the mags.
What do you miss the most about skating now that you’ve been away from it?
Just cruising downtown and being part of the city, just vibing with people on the streets. Cutting through traffic and hitting little obstacles in the way. Just cruising, man, just going. I miss just being free, you know? I’m kind of stuck right now. I’m parked, but it’s just a matter of time.
Is there anything else from this experience you want to share?
Um…f**k. Be careful. Safety first. Always wear your helmet. I don’t know; I’m just kidding! There’s nothing really to say. Just live, live life, because your shit could be f**king done at any moment.