Mike Kult is taking me on a building tour when, suddenly, a closed door appears. I panic at the protocol.
Do I let him get the door because he is my host at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and he's a man, and this is still a social convention I follow?
Or do I rush to open the door to spare him the reach — he IS in a wheelchair. And good grief, how many doors are there in UNO's massive, redone athletic building ...
Decision made. Kult pushes the door open with not a small amount of force.
I stop fretting. Mike Kult can get all the doors from here on out.
What's a closed door when you survive a childhood accident that crushes your back, resulting in 17 surgeries and the amputation of your right leg below the knee?
What's a closed door when you played competitive wheelchair basketball in college, then spent the next three decades competing in other sports (including hockey) with a couple of notable exceptions. “We're very bad at high jump and pole vault,” Mike says, winking.
What's a closed door when you drive a car, live independently, help run a state-of-the-art, 250,000-square-foot athletic facility and are about to host 15 of the best male wheelchair athletes in the nation?
Mike Kult doesn't dwell on closed doors. He opens them and goes through.
It's what he did growing up, first in Audubon, Iowa, and later in Blair, Neb.
Mike doesn't remember playing around the cattle-loading chute when he was 4. He doesn't remember the metal-and-wooden loading ramp crashing down, smashing into his back and breaking the 11th and 12th thoracic and first lumbar vertabrae, which sit in the middle of the back, parallel to the bellybutton.
He doesn't remember the first trip to the hospital. He doesn't remember the doctors telling his parents they couldn't say how much use or strength of his legs he'd recover.
“Push him,” was the advice they gave in 1960. “Try everything.”
This was not easy for his folks, who had to watch as Mike would invariably fall and have to figure out how to get upright. Mike remembers how hard his accident was on them.
He does remember hopping around on crutches. Wearing leg braces that reached to his midchest and were adjusted by a local welder as he grew.
He does remember walking nine to 10 blocks to school, climbing trees, feeling no different from his six siblings. He does remember being on the wrestling team from junior high to freshman year at Blair High School, when he broke his right ankle. And it didn't heal.
He lost his lower right leg that year. Then 14, he was home a day after the amputation and managed with crutches and a prosthesis until his left leg hurt so bad he switched to a wheelchair.
Mike graduated from Blair High School. He attended UNO but transferred to Southwest Minnesota State University, where he went to play wheelchair basketball.
This sport, which started after World War II with injured GIs yearning for physical recreation, requires incredible athleticism. Baskets remain 10 feet off the ground. The free-throw line remains 15 feet from the basket. The 3-point line, an arc about 22 to almost 24 feet from the hoop, remains the same.
The game is almost the same for those on wheels as it is for those with two working legs. And Omahans will have a chance to see some of the best in the sport Saturday evening, when the U.S. men's wheelchair basketball team opens one of its practices at UNO to the public.
Players arrive today and are practicing privately at UNO's newly redone Health, Physical Education and Recreation building.
Mike is one of the team's assistant coaches and will travel with the players to Bogota, Colombia, for the American Games in August. Depending on how the team does there, it could go to South Korea for the World Games next year. If the team plays well enough there, it can qualify for the Paralympics in 2016 in Brazil, which occur two weeks after the Olympics.
Mike began working at UNO in 1992 as a graduate assistant at HPER.
He was grateful the university offered him a job at a time when other employers cited his disability as a reason they could not hire him, even after landmark federal civil rights legislation for the disabled would have made doing that illegal. Kult said it was just too soon after the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, had passed.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
Then again, some employers tried to recruit Mike because of his disability. But he was not interested in being anyone's poster child.
Instead, Mike has worked to promote better accessibility for wheelchair users on campus at UNO. In 1998, he spoke out about UNO's then-new dorms that had no elevators.
A beneficiary of Shrine hospitals, Mike is a Shriner and dresses as Krash the Clown — with a specially made colorful, striped wheelchair, its sideguards decorated with balloons.
Mike coaches the Red Dawgs, a traveling youth wheelchair basketball team he started about 20 years ago. The Red Dawgs have won four national championships And he coaches a co-ed youth wheelchair softball team, the junior Barons, which has won five national championships.
Participating in competitive sports challenges disabled children, Kult said, and shows them they can do things they might have thought were off-limits.
“You can only succeed,” Mike said, “as much as you're challenged.”
He seems to be living proof of that.
During our tour, I stopped noticing Mike's wheelchair and started noticing his tree-trunk chest, his steel-strong arms, his thickly calloused hands.
“How much can you bench press?” I asked the 58-year-old, who gave up weightlifting about six years ago because of a bum shoulder. Wheelchair athletes blow out shoulders the way able-bodied athletes blow out knees.
“At my max,” Mike answered, “460 pounds.”
As we cruised through the HPER building, Mike opened a lot of doors for me.
Certainly in his life, he has opened countless doors for himself.
“I've had doors closed,” he said. “But other doors have opened. I've been very, very lucky.”
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