Mike Delisle: Plain Talk About Transitioning from Two Wheels to Wheel Chair

  By Jerry Bernardo  
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By Jerry Bernardo

The excitement level for a true hard-core motorcycle racer often causes one to suffer from blurred vision. This usually occurs before hopping on one’s bike, while signing the usual legal waiver in order to race.

Let’s be truthful: You know when it comes to reading the fine print, you skip all the bullshit and go straight to the part where you sign your name.

Everyone wants to race, everyone wants to win, but no one wants to get hurt—nor do we stop and ponder the fact that it can happen in a split second.

This is the part no one ever bothers to read: “The undersigned hereby acknowledges and agrees that all activities at ‘name of race track’ (including all motorcycle riding/racing/practicing and related activities) are extremely dangerous and involve the risk of property damage, serious bodily injury, and/or death. Thus, the undersigned hereby assumes all risks inherent in such activities no matter how any damage, injury, or death may be caused, or regardless of the severity of any damage or injury.”

If you stop to read that before you race, you might as well watch a TV show about plane crashes and then drive to the airport for the long flight to Ibiza.

In my many years in the moto industry, I’ve known far too many people who’ve been sentenced to life in a wheelchair. It’s a subject no one wants to think or talk about. Fate has no picky selection criteria when it comes to such an injury. You could be an international rally pro or just a guy in the back yard warming his bike up to drop the oil. If you crash and injure your spinal cord, your life will change.

One of those guys whose life changed I know very well; he’s Chris Blais, a longtime SoCal desert racer whose star was still rising—as evidenced by his third-place finish at the Dakar Rally in 2007—before breaking his back while pre-running for Vegas to Reno later that year. He still loves the sport, though, and remains active in it through his business, Blais Racing Services, and fuels his still burning competitive fire by racing both RC cars and side-by-sides.

He has a great philosophy: “We never know what life will bring our way. I try and live life to the fullest every day before and after my injury. I wouldn’t change anything I ever did before, even if I knew I was going to end up in a wheelchair. The chair definitely gets in the way and makes things more difficult, but we figure out a way to make things happen. I just keep pushing forward and living life. I’m just racing four-wheeled vehicles now instead of two. I definitely don’t mind the safety cage now!”

Now meet 26-year-old Mike Delisle from Colchester, Connecticut. “Mikey D” was a fun-loving, East Coast knucklehead who raced up to 65 times a year on his trusty KTM 200. “I raced the GNCCs, NETRA, J Day Off-Road, PSTR, any other off-road race you could find on the East Coast,” Mikey beams.

One day at the track, that all changed and the life he now leads finds him without the use of his legs. Fate stole that function from him, but the one thing Mikey refused to give away was his infectious grin.

Jerry Bernardo: First off, tell us what was going on the day of your injury.

Mike Delisle: it was just a normal race. I got a good start and was where I needed to be all day. On the last lap, I made some moves and got into first place. About 200 yards from the finish line I hit some rocks and got bucked over the handlebars—then shit got weird.

I knew I was in trouble when I couldn’t feel my legs. The paramedics came up and I began screaming, “Don’t cut my boots off!” (I had on a brand-new pair of SG12s.) I was ambulanced to Backus Hospital for an MRI, then Lifestarred to Hartford, Connecticut.

On the helicopter pad I proceeded to argue with the paramedics to fly with the door open. He told me, “This is not the Marines—we don’t fly with the doors open!” I had to settle for a 6” x 8” window.

We get off the helicopter at Hartford Hospital and the paramedic tells me I’m going to the ninth floor. I asked him, “Are there any hotties on the ninth floor?”

He replied, “I believe so.”

“Send them to my room!” I barked with a laugh.

In reality, the life I knew had just changed, but I was still messing around like I always had.

JB: How many times have we motorcycle riders in general gone to race and breezed right through the waiver, only looking for the place where we sign it?

MD: I know—I’ve signed hundreds of them. I was doing up to 65 races a year. It kind of becomes routine; it’s something you think nothing of signing.

JB: While the idea of becoming paralyzed doing something you loved so much was never a part of your thought process, it did happen. How tough is the daily mental battle now?

MD: Let me say this: Being paralyzed sucks, but you have to make the best of it. While you’re sitting in this chair, you have only two options: You can sit here and be depressed or you can sit here and make the best of it. Life goes on whether you’re ready or not.

"You can sit here and be depressed or you can sit here and make the best of it. Life goes on whether you’re ready or not." - Mike Delisle

JB: On a lighter note, we saw you seated at a custom fabricated rack up at the bar. What’s the story behind that contraption?

MD: At the local watering hole, I used to frequent quite a bit, a few of the regulars commented on how it sucks that I can’t sit at the bar and joke with them anymore. I had to sit at a low table away from the bar now. So, they decided to craft up a ramp so the wheelchair could sit up at the bar’s height again. It sounds like a small thing, but it was something that I missed.

Some of Mike's buddies at his local watering hole decided to build a ramp for him so he could sit at the bar with them again.

Some of Mike's buddies at his local watering hole decided to build a ramp for him so he could sit at the bar with them again.

JB: You’re going to become part of a wheelchair rugby team as well. Rugby can be brutal. Are you a sucker for punishment?

MD: My level of injury is C6/C7 and it affects my hands so I’m labeled as a quadriplegic (impairment to all four limbs). With my limited to no hand function, some sports are harder for me to play. Rugby is quadriplegics only, so every player has impairment to all four limbs making it a much easier playing field. Yes, it is full contact, but let’s face it: It’s going to take a lot work for me to get more paralyzed (laughs). I might as well ram [and be rammed by] people in wheelchairs.

JB: The financial struggle now is pretty massive now for you and your family. If money were not an issue, what would you need to make life a bit easier?

MD: Being paralyzed is very expensive. The wheelchair I’m in daily is $6,000 and I have two of them. One is for a backup in case the first one breaks. I have some spare wheels and other adaptive equipment I need to live a normal life. I want an off-road, tracked wheelchair so I can continue to go to races and go on hikes like I used to. They cost around $14,000. I’d also like to be able to weigh myself without going to a hospital or the local scrap yard. (Wheelchair scales are $2000.) A handicap-equipped vehicle would set me back $50,000. That’s money I do not have.

I can transfer in and out of a normal vehicle, but in the rain or snow it takes around 10 minutes and you end up soaked, so a vehicle with a lift or ramp that would fold out automatically would make my life much easier.

JB: What does the future hold for you?

MD: Right now, a lot of therapy and trying to become as independent as possible. I want to resume my daily life the best I can and eventually return to the workforce. I would love to compete in the Summer Paralympics in Tokyo three years from now. I’m working hard every day to achieve those goals. I’ve been peer advocating to new spinal cord patients in the hospital to try to help them transition back to normal life the best I can.

"I would love to compete in the Summer Paralympics in Tokyo three years from now. I’m working hard every day to achieve those goals." - Mike Delisle

I was thinking about one day writing a book or getting into standup comedy in a wheelchair. I would call it “sitdown comedy (smiles).” I’ve [also] been trying to educate the public on spinal-cord injury awareness and prevention.

JB: This is your chance to give a pot shot to those people who greedily take up a handicap spot when they do not fill the requirements. Let it fly!

MD: I don’t want a handicap spot because it’s close to the door. I have no problem pushing from the other end of the parking lot. What bothers me when some dickhead uses our spots is I need six feet of space to get in and out of the vehicle. When you go to places like the mall and there’s not a handicap spot to be found because people who are not handicapped have taken them, you get stuck parking in the back of the lot only to return two hours later to find you’re parked in and you can no longer access your vehicle. Little things like that make life a lot harder for me now.

I have to tell you this funny story from the hospital: I wake up one night in a vent-weaning unit. I was there working on coming off of a vent with a mucous plug, as I was not breathing. A nurse is rubbing my arm and telling me, “Chris, everything’s going to be all right; you’re going to be fine.” I’m laying in bed, I can’t talk, I can barely breathe and I’m thinking to myself, “I’m glad Chris is okay because Mikey is really struggling right now!”

Everything was okay moments later, but I hope that the nurse never came back to give Chris his meds because I ain’t Chris!

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Want to support Mike Delisle and help him raise funds for new adaptive equipment? Consider purchasing a Support Mikey D t-shirt or decal by sending him a DM via Instagram or Facebook.