You’ve heard it before: “The first few years of my disability were so scary I did very little and ran away from everything.” You know the feeling: the trauma of sudden disability that drops on you like an anvil. But these words come from a man who went on to be selected six times to the U.S. Wheelchair Basketball Team, win 10 U.S. Open Wheelchair Tennis titles and three medals in three different Paralympic sports, something no Olympian has ever done before or since. This man also won the Jack Gerhardt Award (equivalent to the Heisman Trophy for wheelers), was inducted into the Wheelchair Sports Hall of Fame and was Speaker of the Year for Toastmasters. Yes, Toastmasters–you’ve got to hang up the old jock strap sometime, even if you’re Randy Snow.
So how did Snow go from feeling freaked out to being an international athletic overachiever? The answer is not simple, and part of it you might not expect: “Somewhere a long time ago I learned low self-esteem,” says Snow, “and that’s probably why I went to four Paralympic Games, because it never ends. You always have to validate yourself over and over.”
So that’s the secret to success in sports: low self-esteem?
Well, we all struggle, especially in those tender preteen years. Could be that’s where Snow acquired doubts about himself, when his 12-year-old world was fractured at the time his parents divorced. “I was a kid, it was before I got hurt, and it was devastating,” he says. So he hid his disappointment by cultivating an indifferent attitude.
But by 1975 the 16-year-old Snow was on the mend and emerging as an athlete with hopes of snagging a tennis scholarship to the University of Texas, where he would study business. Then all hell broke loose. In the space of a year, his stepsister died of a severe medication reaction, his stepbrother tried to take his own life, and Snow, operating a front-end loader, was crushed by a half-ton bale of hay that dislodged and fell on him as he was loading a trailer.
Next, the spinal cord injury hospital nightmare: waking to paralysis, Stryker frames and catheters, reconciling the old body image to the new sensationless one. By this time his parents had both remarried and the families rallied around him, eager to do what they could. “I had major family support. They were there … but no one understood paralysis. It signified failure and sympathy, a demeaning lifestyle.”
Thanks largely to a national search by his family, he wound up at Craig Hospital. “Some of the rehab centers were focusing on research, and ‘Oh, we think we can get him to walk’ … but Craig spoke the truth. They said, ‘We don’t really know what’s going on in that area, but we promise in 90 days he’ll be independent in bowel and bladder, he’ll be dressing himself, and he’ll be driving a car.’ That was it. My stepdad said, ‘We’re going to Craig.'”
The next two years were tough: “The only positive thing that happened was that I finished high school.” After watching his first wheelchair basketball game, he distanced himself from them, avoiding the wheelchair athletes–as he did other chair users. But in his third year post-injury, he took a king-sized step. Left alone in a hunting blind on opening day of deer season, he bagged one, processed and hauled it back to his blind, struggling in his wheelchair. It took four times as long as “normal,” but it paid off. “Because I was able to execute and complete this difficult task, in private without the subjection of public failure,” he writes in his recent memoir, “my confidence was significantly enhanced.”
Then came re-entry into the world of sports, which he did with the help of Bob Kafka and Stehanie Thomas, present-day leaders of the Texas chapter of ADAPT, the no-nonsense disability activist organization. At the time, in the late ’70s, Kafka and Thomas had started the Southwest Wheelchair Athletic Association. “They gave me the opportunity to become an athlete, and I took that opportunity and learned how to become selfish.” Which is what athletes must do if they’re serious about competing. In this respect, elite sports and hardcore activism–usually considered unlikely companions–share a critical character trait: extreme commitment and intense focus on winning.
The rest, as they say, is history: Snow excelled in four consecutive Paralympics, beginning in 1984, distinguishing himself as the most versatile–if not the greatest–wheelchair athlete of the 20th Century.
But there’s more to sports than medals and trophies. There’s the satisfaction of knowing you gave 110 percent, win or lose, and the growth that accompanies the rise and fall–the exhilarating climb to the top, rung by rung, the realization that climbing gets harder with age, the passing of the torch to a new generation. Then there are the stories, the international travel, the brushes with famous people and the insights into human nature. Snow has captured all of this in his 2001 book, Pushing Forward, which also includes a dose of hard-earned philosophy: “The expression play the ball not the player is often used in tennis,” he writes. “In life, the matching quote is play the moment, as we should concentrate on what’s right in front of us. Placing expectations on our plans puts a great deal of pressure on us to control our lives, possibly setting us up for failure and misery.”
When Snow talks of failure and misery, and of losing, he speaks from experience. Victory was his oft-realized goal, but “one opponent had always had my number,” he writes, “drugs and alcohol.”
Facing the Enemy
No one trained harder or with more devotion. Not only would Snow drive himself to exhaustion hitting tens of thousands of tennis balls to perfect a strength or eliminate a weakness, he would prepare mentally, studying his opponents as if going to war. When he took the court, he knew he was ready. Conversely, when the match ended, he let go completely. “I never partied normally. I thought losing control was fun.”
Was it mainly alcohol, a drug of choice, or did it matter?
“It didn’t matter,” he says. “It was more. More meant escape for me. I’m kind of that person. It was more training, more analysis of my opponents, more wheelchairs, more fishing poles, all that stuff. More is the reciprocal of being content.”
Toward the end of his competitive career, the pendulum swung radically out of control. “My highs and lows have been wonderfully extreme,” he says. But when his life began caving in, family and friends persuaded him to do something about it, to admit defeat. Reluctantly, he entered a different kind of rehab program than the one he faced 20 years earlier, and it wasn’t easy. “I’ve been in treatment centers three times, and I believe each time I went through a level of acceptance. I used the chair at first to manipulate and to justify. I chose to use the chair to enable me to use drugs and alcohol. But each time I fell off, it got worse. And eventually I had to face it. Just like being in a wheelchair, I had to accept it.”
The low point came in 1997 when he lost everything–money, a boat, a world of electronic gadgetry, his home on an acre. “That’s when the consequences became very, very severe. That’s when I said, ‘You know, I’m gonna stop focusing on being smarter than the game. In this situation I’m gonna focus on being dumb. I’m gonna do what they say.'”
This time it worked. When he was discharged, he had $15 and a suitcase full of clothes that would last seven days. No trophies, no car, no plans to travel and no souvenir photos of himself with famous people to prove he had value. “What I had left,” he writes, “was finally me.”
Starting over didn’t mean picking up where he had left off. “Living in a recovery house with seven other guys,” he writes, “I took the bus each day to my job where I sold Shriners’ Circus tickets for a telemarketing firm.” Like facing the truth of a disability, he had to confront his drug-and-alcohol demon daily and re-establish a sense of self-worth. He got help from others going through the same thing, the dependable structure of a 12-step program, and his Higher Power.
“When I choose to have a relationship with God–and what that means to me is to improve my conscious contact with God–it’s the single most soothing thing that I’ve discovered in my short 42 years,” he says. “I don’t go to a church. My guiding principles come from a 12-step program. And I really value them.”
He has been sober now for nearly four years, and every day is a challenge, as it should be. “I went to a [AA] meeting in Austin yesterday,” he says, “and a guy said, ‘I don’t even know why we keep time. It doesn’t matter.’ We’ve got today.”
Now Snow heads up his own motivational speaker business, NoXQS. “Speaking is so much like competing. I understand it.” His penchant for overpreparing serves him well. “You gather as much data and material as you can, to prepare a plan, and then you overlearn the plan. They call it owning the content. And that’s so much like sports. If you’re overprepared, you’ll be fine when you’re behind 3-1 in the second set.”
But what about the danger of not satisfying that inner child with the low self-esteem? Isn’t that still a problem?
Not after what Snow has been through. In tennis he performed against an opponent in front of a crowd, and when he won, his ego soared. In speaking, he wins crowds over by being himself, by stripping away ego. “In the end it’s like a tennis competition and you win and people come up and congratulate you, but you try to defer–even though you worked your butt off to get there, you try to display humility, which is very important for yourself, basically, to stay humble, because there’s a tendency to fall into ego.”
Instead of receiving awards, now Snow gives away what he has learned, and not only when he’s on the podium. “Last night I’m in a ballroom of 200 people, and I start playing with the little kids, because they don’t have those preconceived notions. They come right up, and you can see the parents kind of come in a little bit–their protective mode–but then they see me doing elephant noses. I’ve got my hand in front of my face and I’m saying, OK, what animal is this”–he makes an elephant noise–“and they go, ‘An elephant!’ And that helps. That tells the whole room that this guy in the wheelchair is OK,” he says, laughing.
He runs 4-inch casters with flashing lights on his wheelchair to appeal to kids. “Let’s say you’re wheeling through the airport, and there’s a mom with two kids, and you’re going by the family, and she’ll kind of reach out subtly and say to the kids, ‘watch out.’ But with the casters, the kid grabs the mom’s arm and points to the casters and says, Mom, look! Cooool!”
Children and family are dear to Snow. He lives in Dallas, close to sisters, nieces and nephews. So why no Mrs. Snow? “I’ve had opportunities, and ladies, and I could tell you that I’ve just never met the right person, or I’m just too busy, yet there’s a fear. I don’t fear women, I fear the intimacy of marriage. The fear of accepting my disability took me four years while someone else might do it quicker. Maybe it will just take me longer to be willing to give my life to someone else. But I can’t force it. It’s gotta just happen.”
He has plenty to do. Besides his speaking business, he is still involved with Quickie Designs, a relationship he’s had since his early days working with Quickie founder Marilyn Hamilton. Recently he’s also been instrumental in establishing two wheelchair tennis scholarships at the University of Texas at Arlington. “Disabled kids get to go to school and pay for their education with wheelchair sports. That gives me more of a buzz than winning my fifth and sixth U.S. Open.”
For fun, he likes to go for a spin in his Spirit 470 handcycle, made by Quickie (Sunrise Medical) of course. “My favorite thing to do is get in my handcycle and ride for about an hour and a half. It just sweeps away the cobwebs.” Less frequently he takes his kayak on a fishing trip.
Today’s Randy Snow is a man who knows what he wants: “I want to grow my speaking business, stay involved with Quickie Designs, and date and explore the possibility of a relationship. I want to be wise, live without guilt and not take life so seriously. And I want to be appreciative.”
It’s clear he already appreciates where he’s been–traveling and learning and meeting people while competing, but he’s happy the sports grind is over. “Retiring from sports has been very healthy for me. It’s over. What a relief!”
Now he can kick back and give rein to that inclination to philosophize. “It’s like the famous philosopher, Jimmy Buffett, says,” he laughs. “Some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic, but it’s been a good life all the way.”