Gladwin Native Mike Ballard Continues to Live Out His Dream

It was six years ago that Gladwin native Mike Ballard experienced the worst day of his life.

Mike Ballard Rugby 1A former three-sport athlete at Gladwin High School and a collegiate baseball player at Adrian College, Ballard moved to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates in 2011 to take a job as a special education teacher.

While in the UAE, Ballard joined the Abu Dhabi Harlequins, a rugby union and rugby league team that is a member of the Emirates Rugby League and Gulf Top 6.

It was during the 2014 West Asia Cup final against the Jebel Ali Dragons that Ballard suffered a freak accident.

“I just went to make a tackle. And the guy came down on top of me and a couple other guys were on the tackle and everybody just kind of folded up on top of me and I just ended up in a bad position and broke my back,” Ballard said.

“I had a pretty good idea that I was paralyzed. I just remember thinking, ‘Okay, this is the worst day of your life.’”

The day also happened to mark the first time Ballard’s mother, Karen Ballard, had seen him play.

“I asked him what happened, and he said, ‘I can’t feel my legs,’ and off we went,” she said. “It was horrendous. It was devastating. It’s unthinkable, and it’s shocking.”

Ballard had broken his back and was paralyzed from waist down.

Soon after Ballard and his mother flew back to Michigan where he recovered at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids.Mike Ballard Recovery

“Before you can leave inpatient physical therapy, you have to be able to do everything in your daily routine on your own,” Ballard says. “Getting out of bed, getting dressed, going to the bathroom.”

“It’s painful to watch a very, very strong son, hardly be able to just lift, but it was so exciting when he was able to just lift his foot,” added Karen Ballard. “I think it was hip flexors that were doing it, but still it was very exciting.”

Ballard spent the next two years living in northern Michigan with his parents in Lake Ann while he recuperated from five surgeries before returning to his teaching job in the Middle East in 2016.

“I was just excited to get back out here get into a routine, you know, lots of sun, you know no snow, no rain,” he said.

Mike Ballard 05It was upon his return to Abu Dhabi that Ballard, who is now 35, had an idea.

“The 2016 Paralympics were on,” he says. “I saw that and I got the wheels started turning. So, 2016 to 2017 I really started trying to get fit, and then kind of 2018 was when I really settled on kayaking and really focusing on that.”

Ballard took up the sport of kayaking and began competing in tournaments around the world.

“There’s still a pretty big, big gap between me and the top guys in the world,” Ballard said. “That just comes down to not so much the training or the fitness but just the technique, and getting yourself in the right boat and getting the right the right equipment.”

From moving across the world, to experiencing the worst day of his life, to now being a contender for the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics, Ballard has persevered through it all.

Ballard says that if he is unable to qualify for the 2021 Paralympics, he has already set goals of making it to the Paris Games in 2024.