Most people prefer the easy route — Grant Korgan is not one of those people.
In 2012, the adventurer, nanoscientist and professional athlete became the first person with a spinal cord injury to push himself by ski sled to the South Pole.
With help from Geoff Callan, an avid athlete and film producer, Korgan made a documentary about his experience, The Push, which will screen at the Dairy Arts Center on Jan. 27.
Less than two years prior to reaching the South Pole, Korgan suffered a burst fracture to his L-1 vertebrae in a snowmobile accident, leaving him without feeling beneath his belly button. Even before suffering a major spinal cord injury, Korgan was never one for the path of least resistance.
“I seek out the uncomfortable,” Korgan says. “When something’s comfortable, it’s like, ‘I’m not learning enough from this.’”
Korgan grew up in Lake Tahoe where he constantly spent time outside. In his sophomore year of college at Western State Colorado University, while recovering from a massive ski injury, Korgan lost his best friend in an avalanche. The loss changed the trajectory of his life.
“Life became about what’s the maximum,” Korgan explains. “What’s the most challenging path I can take to learn the most, and experience the most, and feel the most?”
After the death of his friend, true to his word about seeking challenges, Korgan transferred to the University of Nevada Reno to study mechanical engineering. He admittedly struggled with engineering courses, needing five tutors, he says, to get through the entry-level math courses. Despite his early struggles, Korgan took the challenge head-on and finished his degree.
But his biggest challenge was yet to come.
After his debilitating snowmobile accident in March of 2010, with is wife Shawna by his side, Korgan vowed to recover “120%,” and less than a year after his accident, he was asked to join adventurer Doug Stoup in becoming the first spinal cord-injured athlete to visit the South Pole. Korgan knew he had to do it.
Over the next year, Korgan trained his body and mind for the massive task of pushing himself 100 miles on skis.
“If I say to you, ‘Man, we’re out here, we’re in the South Pole,’ and I say, ‘I’m cold,’ if there’s nothing you can do about it, to help fix that cold, there’s no point in bringing it up, thinking about it or breathing any energy into it,” Korgan explains.
Fellow expedition guide Tal Fletcher joined Korgan and Stoup as they began training. Before arriving in Antarctica, Korgan estimated that with each push of his poles, he would be able to glide around 10 feet on the Antarctic snow. If he were to glide 10 feet per push, Korgan estimated he would have to use one-quarter of a million strokes to make it. The reality proved to be much more grim as each push gave Korgan almost no glide.
“I grunted as I pushed myself forward, maybe a foot,” Korgan says.“I called the snow velcro on styrofoam — there was zero glide, it just crushed. And it was seriously like pulling yourself across shag carpet in a laundry basket.”
Slowly but surely, Korgan pushed himself 100 miles to the South Pole. Awaiting him there was the greatest surprise of all, his biggest supporter, his wife Shawna.
“If I could be that uncomfortable and still give joy,” Korgan says, “well, where else in the world could I do that?”
Since his Antarctic adventure, Korgan has become one of the faces of spinal cord recovery, preaching his lessons of positivity through adversity. Korgan has achieved a long-time dream of getting his pilot’s license. He uses his license to take those who have been affected by spinal cord injuries for flights.
“I hand them the thing that they lost when they had their spinal cord injury, their amputation or their TBI or whatever the element is, which is control,” Korgan explains. “They get to, for that time, feel the freedom of what it’s like to have agency over their own life, to say, ‘I want to go left, I want to go right, I’m gonna go down, I want to go up.’ And when you’ve been locked into a body where that’s not possible for years, it’s insane.”