After a fire robbed him of the use of his hands, Dan Caro vowed to never give up on his dreams. He says adversity is a gift that can encourage you to create the life you've always imagined...even if it feels like a long shot.
Watching the proud faces of the athletes arriving at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games reminded me of the importance of never giving up on your dreams, no matter what obstacles you encounter.
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
Of course, it's hard to pass for normal when you don't have hands or a face, a fact my kindergarten classmates made abundantly clear to me by screaming "monster!" and running away in terror whenever they saw me in the schoolyard. Even at home, life was far from normal for me. Most kids develop the skills to perform the simple tasks daily of life—brushing teeth, buttoning a shirt, picking up a fork—without even thinking about what they are doing. But for me, every little chore required months or even years of practice.
Sometimes life seemed so difficult and the future so bleak I could see little point of carrying on. My dream of skiing in the Olympic Games was being slowly beaten out of me by the painful struggle to just get through another day. But in fighting to overcome the thousand little adversities I faced because of my accident, I learned that as long as I never gave up, I could achieve anything.
When I was 5 years old, I applied this theory to what I considered the greatest failure of my young life—my inability to tie up my own shoelaces. After nearly giving up on this seemingly impossible task, I promised myself to keep practicing not matter what, and if ever I felt like tossing in the towel, I'd force myself to practice twice as hard. I worked on pulling those laces into a bow until the stumps at the end of my arms were rubbed raw. It took me more than seven years, but I succeeded.
My shoelace victory gave me the confidence to aim higher. Within a month, I picked up my first set of drumsticks and figured out a way to keep the sticks attached to my arms long enough to hit the drum at least one time before I dropped them. I practice playing the drums like a madman. Within a few years, I was playing gigs on Bourbon Street with some of the best jazz musicians in the world, touring the country with my own band and recording a CD of original music. As I wrote in my book The Gift of Fire: How I Made Adversity Work for Me, I have learned with absolute certainty that, no matter how difficult life seems at times, dreams can come true if you never give up.
While I've yet to become a champion Olympic downhill skier, I haven't given up on my boyhood dream...not by a long shot.
Most of my friends and family called me crazy when last summer, not long before my 30th birthday, I packed my bags and moved from New Orleans to the tiny mountain town of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to finally learn how to ski. It took months just to find boots that would fit my twisted feet and even longer to master the bunny hill without using poles, but now I'm skiing the entire mountain and jumping moguls on the way down.
So if you happen to be watching the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, keep an eye out for the 42-year-old downhill racer hurtling toward his first gold medal, even though he seems to have forgotten to bring along his ski poles. That'll be me.
Dan Caro was born and raised in Southern Louisiana and grew up surrounded by the sounds of the New Orleans jazz scene. He vowed at a young age that, despite the childhood fire that robbed him of his hands, he would become a professional drummer. His pursuit and achievement of his dream inspired thousands of people and launched his second career as a motivational speaker. Dan is also an author of The Gift of Fire: How I Made Adversity Work for Me and serves as ambassador for the Shriners of North America.
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Printed from Oprah.com on Wednesday, December 11, 2013
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