World champion freestyle skier Mike Nemesvary grew up in a water-skiing family. He was an active kid, the middle child of three, who grew up in the suburbs of Ottawa. He learned early on that he liked to go fast. On the water he developed his taste for speed, for wind in his face. It’s where learned that the only way to go is forward, and it’s where he got into strapping planks to his feet.
by Joseph Mathieu.
“When I was very young I knew I wanted to be the best freestyle skier in the world,” says Mike during a stroll near his house in Manotick, Ontario. “Of course, I kind of feel cheated…” He watches a powerboat whizz by on the Rideau River. “But why worry about it? …That boat is planing perfectly, see that? Just perfect.”
Mike is whizzing along in his own craft, a motorized wheelchair, alongside his scrappy assistance dog, the golden lab Jigger. Mike’s a quadriplegic, and has been ever since a routine trampoline exercise in May 1985 ended in tragedy. The 55-year-old hasn’t skied in over 30 years but he lights up with the same enthusiasm as when he was 15 and won his first title at the 1976 Canadian National Freestyle Skiing Championship at Camp Fortune.
“In a moment, in a heartbeat, your life can change. And yet, you find when it changes that there are reserves of strength, reserves of resourcefulness, reserves of energy that you can call on to go forward… Nobody exemplifies that better than Mike.” —Christopher Reeve
“It is what it is,” he smiles as the boat disappears around a bend. In the early 1980s, twenty-something Mike excelled at the World Cup–level aerials. He was representing Canada, his adoptive country, though he would later take up his native UK flag. On March 19, 1983 at Angel Fire Resort in New Mexico, he won the World Cup aerials event for Great Britain. The sport-wide excitement about aerials becoming a demonstration sport at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics was brimming over in the young champion.
He was testing his mettle in competition while experimenting with stunt work, and he threw himself into commercials for Audi and Ballantine’s whiskey by throwing himself over moving vehicles and cameramen. Mike appeared in the opening credits of 1985 James Bond film A View to a Kill, where his skiing silhouette somersaulted and spun to the music of Duran Duran, and he was also featured in Willy Bogner’s Fire and Ice, alongside his freestyle idol and friend John Eaves.
“John has supported me unconditionally before and after my injury,” he says. “During the release of Willy Bogner’s IMAX film Ski to the Max in 2000, we did the North American premiere in Calgary and all the profits went towards my ‘Round the World Challenge charity.”
“When I was very young I knew I wanted to be the best freestyle skier in the world. Of course, I kind of feel cheated… But why worry about it?”
His 2001 ‘Round the World Challenge was an ambitious odyssey across four continents in a vehicle customized to allow a quadriplegic to drive. Mike took three years to plan an epic road trip in which he raised awareness and funds for spinal cord injury (SCI) treatment that took him to 110 cities in 20 countries, totalling a 40,000 km trip. He raised $1.5 million.
“In a moment, in a heartbeat, your life can change,” said actor and quad activist Christopher Reeve, in the opening minutes of the documentary about the trip. “And yet, you find when it changes that there are reserves of strength, reserves of resourcefulness, reserves of energy that you can call on to go forward… Nobody exemplifies that better than Mike.”
His skiing took him hors-piste in mountain ranges all over the world and onto 18 World Cup podiums over a decade-long career. Even after his accident, he decided to try to break the world toboggan speed record at Les Arcs in France in 1987. He managed only to delight onlookers and look badass in a metallic speeder.
“There’s nothing you can’t do, with the right resources. Water-skiing, sit-skiing, even adaptive-sailing. It has helped so much, so much, not just physically but mentally, to have this support system. A lifeline.”
Shortly after his accident, Barbara Broccoli—the daughter of the James Bond producer Arthur R. “Cubby” Broccoli and a friend of Mike’s—started a trust to help Mike. After accumulating about £100,000, Mike decided he had enough and wanted to give back. He started the Back Up Trust Fund to help downed athletes with SCI get back to sports.
“There’s nothing you can’t do, with the right resources. Water-skiing, sit-skiing, even adaptive-sailing,” he adds. “It has helped so much, so much, not just physically but mentally, to have this support system. A lifeline.”
It’s another lesson he learned on water skis: even through the choppiest waters you never let go of that rope.
Nemesvary, Mike Nemesvary.
In January 1985, while Mike was repping Great Britain at the FIS World Cup in Breckenridge, Colorado, he received a call from the British Ski Federation. Cubby Broccoli was producing the 14th James Bond movie, A View to a Kill, and wanted Mike to perform in the opening credits.
He reported to Pinewood Studios in London to meet with Maurice Binder, the original Bond film title designer famous for creating the signature gun barrel sequence. Binder consulted the 24-year-old Nemesvary on how best to design a sloped ramp of Dendix ski matting on which the skier could tuck, jump and vault himself.
“Basically we took over the studio,” said Mike, “and we built a slope on the backdrop of a blue screen for silhouettes, dancing and pole flips.” The ramp was built 100 by 70 feet and Mike brought his trampoline to capture side and dolly shots. Mike was then known for jumping on a trampoline with his skis on and he travelled with his own tramp. He was, incidentally, a Canadian trampoline champion.
For three weeks of the 1984-85 FIS championship, Mike flew to London on Monday to consult and film, then flew out to the next World Cup stop. “That was the last big thing I did, and on that same trampoline, two or three months later, I broke my neck.” Only four weeks after his paralyzing fall, Mike pleaded with his ICU doctors at Stanmore Hospital in North London to attend the Bond premiere at Leicester Square. He was allowed to watch the first half of the movie, but all he needed to see were the first few moments where Binder’s name appeared, in a sign of respect, just as Mike’s silhouette did a front flip.
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