January 31, 1998 in Washington Voices

Coming Back Strong When Life Knocks Him Down, Lance Nelson Bounces Right Up

By The Spokesman-Review

Lance Nelson fell hard, face-first on the wet track.

Gravel pierced the soft skin of the boy’s elbows, knees and chin. Blood flowed down his legs.

Jerry Nelson remembers how paramedics rushed toward his 12-year-old son. They wanted to clean the boy’s wounds. Lance just wanted to finish the race.

The memory still chokes up the burly Vietnam veteran. He knew his son had no chance of winning. But the boy kept running.

Lance Nelson has spent his entire life picking himself up and barreling through life’s hurdles. His childhood was filled with uncontrollable seizures, which wracked his body and may have damaged his brain. His family doesn’t really know why Lance, who was walking before the seizures began at 11 months, now suffers from moderate mental retardation.

They do know he’s inspired them with his refusal to give up. The Valley man, who is now 25, has knocked down roadblock after roadblock, showing those around him that many limitations are self-imposed.

“Having these differences hasn’t been easy,” said Lance, a competitive powerlifter who works part-time at Sta-Fit health club on the South Hill. Three years ago, he represented Washington state in the Special Olympics World Games competing against athletes from all over the world. He came home with two silver medals in the deadlift and a bronze in the squat.

Although he weighs just 155 pounds, his goal is to bench press 205 pounds and deadlift at least 375 pounds. His coach, Pat Gray of the city Parks and Recreation Department, is confident he’ll succeed by May.

“You should never give up on yourself,” Lance said. “I may fall down, but I’m not going to give up.”

His struggles began early, his mother, Mary Nelson, said. Lance had a normal infancy. He rolled over, crawled and began walking before his seizures began at 11 months.

His family basically lived at the hospital for two years. At times, their toddler suffered more than 100 seizures a day. Drugs helped, but only at high doses, leaving the child groggy and barely conscious.

Lance was no longer learning like other children, his mom said. He also was turning into a spoiled brat.

The Nelsons decided it had to stop. They agreed to treat him like any other child. They would push him to succeed, and teach him to behave, despite his health and learning problems.

The family often butted heads with well-meaning teachers and counselors, who thought they understood Lance’s abilities and limits better than his parents. When Lance was eight, a teacher told his mother he should take typing because he would never learn to write. Mary Nelson insisted her son be taught both.

In high school, a teacher refused to let Lance take a cooking class, saying the teen might cut or burn himself. They fought that decision and won.

“Sometimes schools can put lids on kids,” admitted Dave Taggart, a special education teacher who spent years as Lance’s instructor, friend and coach.

Lance, he said, didn’t accept lids.

In high school, he dreamed of playing on the football team. While his health problems prevented that, he did play basketball and softball. He competed in track and weight-lifting. He tried everything, Taggart said, and enjoyed it even if he didn’t excel.

At times, he’d suffer the embarrassment of having a seizure during a game.

Other students weren’t always kind, he mother said.

“But he never let it get him down,” Taggart said. He always bounced back, surprising the skeptics.

Despite his learning disability, Lance took a mixture of regular and special education classes at West Valley High School and graduated as an honor student in 1993.

He began job training at Nova Services, a non-profit job placement program. He worked for several years at Spokane Packaging, assembling keyboard boxes for Keytronics and breaking production records.

“He put our guys to shame,” said Larry Hegland, his former supervisor. “If normal was 400 boxes (a day), Lance would be around 1,000. He was the fastest ever.”

Looking for a bigger challenge, Lance joined Sta-Fit as a janitorial supervisor. He now earns enough to nearly eliminate his dependence on Social Security.

“His whole goal is to be able to live on his own and be able to do the things we do day to day,” said Julie Greeley, who manages the health club. “He shows so much drive and motivation.”

Those who know Lance say he’s inspired them to push their own limits, and fight the roadblocks in their own lives.

Eighteen years ago, he inspired his father to overcome alcohol addiction, the biggest obstacle in his own life.

“He’s taught me about true courage,” said Jerry Nelson, now proud to be clean and sober.

It hurts the Nelsons to know Lance may never achieve his dream of complete independence. His epilepsy and his inability to drive will make it hard for him to live on his own.

Still, it makes them proud that he’s accomplished so much, and inspired so many.

One of his proudest moments came three years ago, at the Special Olympics World Games in Connecticut. After watching him compete in a powerlifting event, a stranger walked over and asked for his autograph.

“They had me sign their hat,” Nelson said. “It made me very proud.”

Although he has about 100 medals and several trophies, Nelson doesn’t display them. In fact, he keeps most of them packed away in boxes.

Winning isn’t his goal. “The only thing that matters is that you finish,” he said.

Even when you’re scraped and bloody.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 photos (2 color)

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