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Dave Selvig / Forum Communications Co., Published January 13 2011

Upbeat despite adversity: Paralysis is just latest challenge for Vollmer

Jamestown, N.D. - James Vollmer isn’t the, “Why me?” type.

For much of his life, the Jamestown College football player and track and field athlete has been forced to overcome obstacles life has sent his way.

But the latest hurdle is the greatest.

Vollmer was born with severe eye cataracts. In the seventh grade he suffered an eye injury which caused glaucoma, requiring surgically implanted lenses.

As a freshman in high school, he had a metal rod surgically placed into his chest to, “bring my sunken chest out,” which also required the breaking and reforming of all his ribs.

“There’s always been a challenge in my life,” Vollmer said. “I’ve always had to prove them wrong.”

It’s that positive outlook on life that Vollmer is applying to his latest, and most daunting challenge.

The 22-year-old Rapid City, S.D., native was seriously injured in a pole-vaulting accident Dec. 1 at the Larson Center, preparing for the upcoming indoor track and field season.

While attempting a vault, he missed the landing mat and fell 15 feet, severing his spinal cord and leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

Doctors have said he has just a 5 percent chance of walking again.

Jamestown College will hold a benefit for Vollmer and his family during the Jimmies’ basketball doubleheader against Valley City State tonight at the Civic Center to help defray medical expenses.

Updates on his progress can be found on his Caring Bridge blog site, named “James’ New Journey” at www.caringbridge.org/visit.jamesnewjourney/journal.2. An account has also been set up at Wells Fargo and can be found at “Donations for James Vollmer.”

Despite his seemingly endless string of serious physical setbacks, Vollmer remains inspiringly optimistic.

“Having negative thoughts, or asking, ‘Why me?’ isn’t going to do any good. I have too much work to do,” he said. “I’m focused on the future and trying to do the best I can on the challenge in front of me.”

Vollmer is at the Craig Institute in Denver, which specializes in traumatic spinal cord and brain injuries. He was originally supposed to be in Denver for between 10 to 12 weeks, but has exceeded the early projections and should be done in seven weeks. His tentative release date is Feb. 4, one day after his birthday.

The rehab process has been a grueling one, he said, but he’s encouraged by the results.

“They definitely know what they’re doing here,” he said. “What I’ve been doing recently is a pretty hard-core lifting class. I’m busy pretty much from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.”

Most of the program is centered on what he’ll do once he leaves Craig Institute and goes home.

“A lot of it is structured toward what happens once I leave here. Say I fell out of my (wheel) chair. How do I get back into my chair? Or, how do I go outdoors? Or, how do you go down stairs without assistance?” he said. “It’s basically getting ready and adjusted for a new set of challenges.”

He’s looking forward to going home, though. And from there he hopes to return to Jamestown College next fall. He’s just two classes shy of getting his degree in radiology technology. He’s uncertain if he’ll be able to work in his original field of study, but if not, “I’ll go back to school and figure out something I can do,” he said.

That’s the attitude he’s attacked every challenge in his life with.

Whether it was playing cornerback in football or trying to master the pole vault – generally considered the most technical of any track and field event – Vollmer always pushed himself to the limit.

“I wanted to be the best I could. I didn’t want to settle for mediocrity, and that’s how I’m approaching this part of my life,” Vollmer said. “I can’t settle for less now.”

During the last five weeks, Vollmer has realized how close-knit the Jamestown College family is. It’s something he often heard his coaches talk about, but is experiencing it personally now.

“Coaches talk about family with the idea that your coaches are like father figures and your teammates are your brothers and sisters. I always liked that aspect of being at Jamestown, but I never really knew how true it was until this happened,” Vollmer said. “I got a letter from a lady who graduated from Jamestown College in 1962. I’ve gotten so many messages like that from people that I don’t even know, and there have been a lot of people that have helped me and my family out a lot through this.

“I had no idea how widespread the family aspect was at Jamestown College, but I’m definitely glad to be a part of that family.”


Selvig is the sports editor for the Jamestown Sun, a Forum Communications Co. newspaper