It helps to set goals. The other day I agreed to do some coaching and maybe a little driving in a very fast car at a reasonably fast track, fifty-five days from now. In-between now and then I have a lot of rehab and maybe two additional surgeries to knock out, but I’m confident I can do it. Better to agree to something and then work hard to get there than it would be to rehab without a goal and then agree to do something when I’m completely ready, whatever that means. Right now I’m in the kind of pain that makes me swear randomly during phone conversations:
“Well, I don’t think that the Milgauss will always commmand this kind of pricing MOTHERF*&% GOD DAMN IT TO HELL AARRRGH MY LEG forever, it’s the watch of the moment but in the long run it can’t be worth any more than an LV, it doesn’t cost as much to make.”
Regardless of that, however, I’m improving. Ten days ago I couldn’t lift my right foot off the ground; today I can lightly kick my son’s toy airplanes out of my way when I’m walker-clomping to the bathroom. It can only get better.
Michael, on the other hand, isn’t getting better.
I’ve been reading a lot about Mr. Schumacher’s condition in the past few weeks. For those of us who consider ourselves fans of the man, this isn’t the first time he’s given us a good scare. There was the broken-leg accident at Silverstone, during which many race fans cheered. If you want a good, solid example of what a piece of shit the average man on the street can occasionally be, just remember that: they cheered Schumacher’s broken leg at Silverstone. Then there was the broken neck during Michael’s brief and difficult motorcycle-racing career.
Those were competitive incidents, the kinds of things which, rightly or wrongly, are supposed to happen to competitors. There’s something tragically and terribly fitting about Senna’s death, for example. Same for Gilles Villeneuve’s death. Those things happened in the heat of competition. Racing drivers are supposed to die in races. Not in planes on the way to the race — that’s how musicians are supposed to die. Not in their bathtubs, not in prosaic street-car accidents like the one that crippled Frank Williams and endangered Peter Windsor. It’s the deal you make with the devil. You risk everything behind the wheel of the race car — and then, when you walk away, you’re safe.
Back around the time that Michael broke his neck on the motorcycle, I was holding a series of weekly house parties where a group of my friends and fellow NASA/SCCA competitors would watch the F1 races and then spend the rest of the night bench-racing and generally yakking about random topics until the last person sobered up and went home. There were really only two responses to the news. Most of the women in the group expressed surprise that Michael would bother to risk his life on a motorcycle after amassing a billion-dollar fortune and seven world championships in Formula One. It didn’t make any sense to them. Why take a risk like that after grabbing the golden ring?
Imagine you woke up tomorrow to find that you had the winning ticket for the $200 million Powerball in your wallet. Just how careful would you be that day? If you had a choice between riding a motorcycle to the claims office or driving a Suburban, which would you pick? What about your safety from attack or theft in the process? Don’t laugh; I’ve read that many winning lottery-ticket holders don’t cash in for two or three days because they basically suffer a sort of emotional paralysis during the intervening time. They become paranoid, agitated, disconnected from reality. The successful redemption of the ticket acquires a monumental degree of difficulty in their thoughts. It’s easiest to do nothing.
Since Michael earned everything he had over time, he wasn’t subject to that sort of thinking — but surely it was a risk too far to try racing motorcycles around one’s fortieth birthday? Why not just sit back and enjoy the money, the fame, the respect? But my fellow racers understood his actions perfectly. Michael had beaten so much risk already. He had a mathematical and courageous approach to it. I have no doubt that he minimized every risk during his motorcycle racing career, the same way he knowingly chose to ski with a helmet on. He was neither a daredevil nor a fool. He understood risk, he accepted it, he mitigated it, he moved forward regardless.
More importantly, the Michael Schumachers of this world are born competitors. They approach life as a series of challenges to be overcome, an endless parade of rivals to vanquish. In the movies, you have a Cole Trickle or a stylized James Hunt who is “simply the best” through mysterious or near-magical means, but in the real world, the Michael Schumachers of the world win out. The people who thoroughly examine every obstacle to victory, the people who think it through, the people who take the necessary action. Look at what Michael accomplished at Ferrari: he chose the team, built the team, motivated the team, and set an example for the team by delivering the finest possible performance himself. The same “oiks” who cheered his broken leg at Silverstone had to sit there and watch Michael ruthlessly dominate the sport in the years afterwards. Each year, Michael was a winner again and they were still the same worthless morons catcalling him from the grandstands. How could it be any other way, when you looked at what Michael was and what his lumpenprole critics were?
Even Schumacher’s much-derided return to F1 with Mercedes-Benz looks a little better now in retrospect as we see how readily Nico Rosberg handled Lewis Hamilton as a teammate. There are people who understand and can manipulate Formula One stats much more competently than I can, but from where I sit it looks like if Nico Rosberg was a constant performer over the past few years, then Michael arguably did at least as well as Lewis has done, correcting for the car’s abilities. Michael certainly got a lot out of a relatively crappy series of Mercedes chassis in the first half of a lot of races. He made a lot of courageous, effective moves in traffic. He in no way looked particularly retired or retiring.
Still, when the man retired this year, I think most of us expected him to take up some role in the management of Formula One somewhere. What team could use a man like Michael Schumacher in a management role? Presumably, every team except Red Bull, and possibly even them. The call was going to come, and Michael would respond. Impeccably fit, cringe-worthily attired, laser-focused. Perhaps in the paddock with Kimi and Fernando, managing their differences as an arbiter whom they both respected. Perhaps whipping one of the more feckless teams into shape. But regardless of the precise nature of the return to the sport, we expected something. Because Michael Schumacher was not the type of person to retire from competition at the age of forty-two.
Instead, unfortunately, we have this seemingly random injury. A rock on a ski trail, placed in just the right spot to do the most damage to the head of a fallen skier. Ninety-one wins at the pinnacle of motorsport and then he’s undone by a rock.
If returning from this injury required some spectacular effort of will and determination, who among us would doubt Michael’s ability to beat it? If he woke up tomorrow in full possession of his faculties and his doctors told him that he would have to perform at a measured 98% of his human physical capacity in rehabilitation without a single failure in a year, who would bet against him? If he woke up paralyzed but with a chance to overcome the condition through sustained effort, who would expect anything other than the best possible outcome?
This time, however, Michael’s greatest weapon — his disciplined, courageous mind — has been taken out of the equation. It’s up to the doctors and the machines and random chance and mysterious healing mechanisms dragged up from the watery depths of our biological inheritance as human beings. Michael may never wake up again. This is not something that he can fix through force of will. He may be finished as a conscious, thinking human being. As tragic as it is for his fans, it’s infinitely more so for his family.
I’ve wondered what would have happened if someone had appeared in front of Michael that morning. “I’m from the future,” the someone would say, “and I’m here to tell you that you’re facing massive risk this morning, you shouldn’t go skiing, you should lay off for the day. I don’t have any proof of this, but trust me.” I know a fair number of people who could be dissuaded from just about anything were someone to appear in front of them with a story like that. Even if they didn’t actually believe the whole time-travel thing, their jimmies would be sufficiently rustled by bringing up an exact accounting of their actual risk on a given day in a given activity. Michael Schumacher was not one of them, I’d suspect.
He’d likely have responded with something like: I know the risk, I’m aware of it, used to it, I’ve taken all precautions, kindly step out of the way, I have some skiing to do. The response of a competitor, a champion. Make no mistake. He was never just going to “switch off” that discipline, that courage, that determination, any more than the man on the street can “switch off” laziness, addiction, envy, underachievement. He was always going to be someone to push the boundaries a little bit. He may never return, but who among us will accomplish what he’s done, given twice the lifetime or more?