The Real Superman

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The Real Superman
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

A man named Jim Benson is now the CEO of John Hancock Insurance. Jim grew up in suburban Illinois and his best friend was Ricky Prine. Jim and Ricky were athletes. And they were inseparable. Sports after school, sports in the neighborhood vacant lots, sports on the week-ends. They played all sports, all the time. And they played with insatiable gusto. When they were both 14, Ricky Prine was in a terrible car accident. In a devastating blink of an eye, he became a quadriplegic.

On one hand, you couldn-t overstate how life changed for Ricky Prine. But to hear Jim Benson tell it, Ricky didn-t change much at all. His sense of humor fully engaged, he pressed on with what he could do with his mind. With no spirit for self-pity, he created challenges and chased them down the way he used to chase a quarterback-s spiral. Through high school, the boyhood friendship between Jim and Ricky grew even tighter. Jim would wheel Ricky on his gurney-type flat-bed to the corner drug store, to class, and to basketball practice. Ricky-s voice served as both head cheerleader and hilarious heckler.

Not long out of high school, Ricky Pryne suffered complications and passed away. That was when Jim Benson vowed that if he ever had either the money or the power to do something for the disabled who had once been athletes, he would.

In the early -90-s, Jim started an organization called World TEAM Sports, the TEAM an acronym for The Exceptional Athlete Matters. He put disabled athletes and able-bodied athletes together in teams to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, ride bikes the length of Vietnam, and run the Antarctic marathon, to name a few of the excursions. I have done many events with this group and found that Jim-s philosophy, based on what he learned from Ricky Pryne, works. When you-re climbing a mountain in Vietnam next to a double amputee who lost his legs during the war there, you don-t see a disabled person. This is not a double amputee. This is your teammate, a highly capable individual, exerting and excelling, shoulder to shoulder with you.

In the late -90-s, a few years after Christopher Reeve-s riding accident, Jim Benson asked him to join the World TEAM Sports board. Chris was the perfect model for the group-s banner. A gifted athlete who had been severely injured doing a sport he loved and who was fiercely determined to live out his days to his fullest potential.

I remember the first board meeting Chris attended as if it were yesterday. We were silenced by the sound of his breathing on the respirator. Silenced also by the power of his presence. Unable to move anything but the parts of his face, he was commanding in his eyes, in his voice. We were actually taken aback that day. Picture most of the room filled with lifelong disability advocates, people devoted to either lobbying Congress or raising money across Corporate America for disabled sports opportunities. People, many of whom are in wheelchairs themselves, who believe the first step to recovery and creating a new life is to reach a state of acceptance.

Well, Chris stopped us cold. He had no patience for acceptance. He said he was living in that strapped contraption for one purpose only and that was to walk again. The disabled community worldwide experienced the same initial reaction to Chris Reeve as we did at World TEAM Sports. We worried at first that his defiance in the face his physical limitations would set back thousands of people who, it seemed, found peace through that acceptance. Then it became apparent. A maverick leader, a visionary, was in our midst. If stem cell research gets full approval and adequate funding, if doctors one day can make a severed spinal cord function again, we can all thank Christopher Reeve. Many athletes today have Superhero bodies but Chris Reeve is the one athlete who truly morphed into Superman.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that-s The Score.



Diana Nyad