After getting paralyzed and having to learn to walk again not once but twice in his lifetime (the second time in 2011), Cottonwood resident Pete Hellmold was able to start, and finish, the 2-mile walk/run portion of the 2014 Brian Mickelsen race, thanks to his self-admitted hard-headedness and the help and support of people he has met in Cottonwood and Sedona.
"How hard headed was I?" Hellmold rhetorically asked when telling the story of the first time he was paralyzed, the answer was coming soon enough. "I'm lying there, trying to be still and looking at this pretty nurse and [the doctor] starts with the hand-drill and it sounds like the slow drill when you go to the dentist ... anyway, I didn't know what happened at the time ... when the doctor was doing the surgery with the hand drill, he hit the seam in my skull and I broke the drill bit. I still have a couple metal filings in my skull."
Hellmold, a native of Leonia, New Jersey, with the Jersey accent to boot and a Cornell alum, moved to the Verde Valley after visiting Sedona some time back. After he first traveled to Sedona, he purchased a timeshare and had been visiting every year for a week with his camera and two rolls of film until he finally moved to Cottonwood.
Sit down with the 65-year-old Hellmold and he will tell you with pride about how he was third-string center and second-string place kicker and did not sit on the end of the bench (that was reserved for the second-string punter) at Cornell University.
"I wasn't a big, macho football player but I was damn proud to make third string center and beat out two scholarship guys, because I never played center until I went there," Hellmold said. "I was too small for tackle and too slow for guard, but I was a decent place kicker ... I was second string place kicker my sophomore year, but I didn't have the last seat on the bench, I was next to the second-string punter, he had the last seat."
If you let him keep going (and you should) he will follow that up with a story, an ironic story, about his time as a high school football coach.
One day during practice he went to show the linemen the correct way to block someone. As he said, his "famous last words" were "now kiddies, stop. Let coach show you how to do it right." As he went to put the block on the dummy, his head hit the wrong way and he was paralyzed from the C-5 and C-6 vertebrae down. He spent two weeks in a coma, three months in the hospital and two years in rehab.
"I was worried about them and not paying attention to myself, didn't put on a helmet and it was a tackling dummy that came at me right between the eyes, well above the eyes," Hellmold said.
The doctors did not expect him to walk again after he lost the use of his limbs. But they did not tell him that. No, one day when the doctor came into the rehab clinic, he asked the physical therapist how Hellmold was doing and they told him to turn around, Hellmold was standing behind him.
"Nobody told me after I had gone to physical therapy that they didn't think I would be able to walk again," Hellmold said. "I'm in my four-poster, which is like a knight's plate of armor ... I was in the therapy room and my rehab doctor, who's Korean and had been away for two weeks in Korea, I heard him talking to my therapist asking 'how's Pete doing? Is he walking?'"
That was the first time he was paralyzed. The second time came much later in his life. After working the night shift, he was walking home and slipped, smacking his head on the pavement. What he didn't know at the time was that it re-aggravated his spine injury and it began to swell up again. This forced him back into the hospital in November 2011. As the hospital was preparing to release him a doctor came in and stopped them, telling Hellmold the bad news.
"Son of a [expletive], I've got to do it all over again," Hellmold said as he laughed. "I said [to myself], 'Well you did it before, now you've got to do it all over again.' I didn't even think about not walking again."
Fast-forward almost three years and Hellmold is living in the Verde Valley, going to physical therapy at Sedona Integrated Medical Clinic, working with Dom Giazzon, and working out at the Cottonwood Rec Center. He saw the sign-ups for the Brian Mickelsen walk/race and decided to sign up. Hellmold saw it as a "challenge" and "milestone," being able to complete after having to learn to walk again.
"Here's a golden opportunity and I've been getting stronger and more stamina," Hellmold recounted. "It's a great milestone for me but I took it as a challenge."
He went out to the course, scouted the route and asked his trainer, Giazzon, to be his walking buddy. Hellmold heaps praise on Giazzon for getting him this far.
"If it wasn't for Dominick I wouldn't be able to walk," the former history teacher said.
With his candy bar and Gatorade in hand, Hellmold and Giazzon lined up behind everyone else waiting the start of the Mickelsen race and the soon-to-be 66 year old was in "brag mode." Everyone took off, and the New Jersey native followed behind them, in no rush and just happy to be there. As they got to the toll both at the entrance of Dead Horse Ranch State Park, they took a quick break so Hellmold could have his snack and get some energy.
They headed back for the finish line and with the end in sight; Giazzon took Hellmold's camera and sprinted towards the end. With about 20 yards to go, the former football coach "started huffing and puffing" across the finish line to get some good looking pictures.
It may have only been two miles, but for Hellmold, it was the same as finishing a marathon. With the help and support of his physical therapists and all of the "gym rats" (as Hellmold calls them) and staff at the Rec Center, like Lisa Wright and Robin Babbitt, Hellmold was able to set his goal and achieve it.
"When you're in a small, caring, supportive environment like the Rec Center and the town, its not that difficult," Hellmold said.
The 2014 Mickelsen race may have been his first, but it won't be his last.
"Oh yeah, I'm going to do it again next year," Hellmold exclaimed. "I think I may go for the 5K walk. I was looking, because it was my first time, and fear of the unknown is the worst thing, so I usually do a recon visit, or practice run first ... when I saw people in the 5K not running but walking, with babies and dogs and strollers, after I finished I said 'hey, I can do that.'"