It is a life lesson I continue to apply to my own Olympic Games ambitions, which began the first time I saw a downhill skiing event on TV. I was just a kid, and I will never forget the thrill that shot up my spine as I watched that race. It was love at first sight, and I promised myself that one day I'd go to the Olympics and win a gold medal in that very same event.
But over the years there always seemed to be a reason for putting that dream on hold instead putting on a pair of skis. To begin with, I didn't even know where people went to ski. I grew up in the sweltering heat of the Louisiana Bayou, and the only snow I saw was the kind that came in different flavors from the ice cream freezer at the corner store. But even if I had been born at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, I would have avoided the slopes because, despite my passion for the sport, I had a paralyzing fear of actually sliding down a mountainside on a pair of oversize swizzle sticks.
And then there was that other little problem—I couldn't hold onto ski poles because I had no hands.
When I was 2 1/2 years old, I wandered out of my family's fenced yard into our garage. While searching for a favorite toy, I knocked over a fuel can, flooding the floor with gasoline and filling the room with fumes. When the pilot light flame of an old water heater ignited the fumes, I was instantly engulfed by a 2,000-degree fireball that burned 80 percent of the skin from my body.
At the hospital, my own parents didn't recognize me when I was wheeled past them on a gurney. I died on the operating table three times. Thankfully, the chief surgeon had a stubborn streak and refused to pronounce me dead. Each time I flatlined, he pumped my chest until my little heart began beating again.
But my injuries were so severe that even the doctors who had fought to keep me alive wondered if I'd be better off dead. There was virtually no flesh left on my body, much of my face had been burned off, and my charred fingers and toes snapped off and dropped to the floor during my first bandage change. My devastated mother and father were told that even if I miraculously lived through the night, I would be so crippled and deformed I'd likely have to be institutionalized.
Thankfully, I was blessed with two of the most wonderful parents imaginable. They were determined I would grow up at home alongside my three brothers and live the life of a happy, normal little boy.
How a shoelace gave Dan the confidence to aim higher