Diving In and Pushing Through
Dec 31, 2019 11:49AM
By Chris Hatch
A moment before Robert Chandler completes a dive—inches and milliseconds before his fingers break the surface tension and he slips between air and water—the doubts and uncertainty of his own limitations snap to silence and quiet confidence fills the void.
Then he’s in. Swimming back up, catching two lungfuls of adrenaline as he paddles back to land. Air. Water. Win. Repeat.
He has won 17 gold, seven silver, and six bronze medals—from the Cornhusker State Games in his own backyard to world championships in places as far away as Gwangju, South Korea—establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with on the Masters diving circuit.
Any good diver will say the entry is only as good as the approach. The penultimate step of the approach, before a diver catapults themselves into their complex, choreographed motions of the dive, is called the hurdle.
It’s more than a name for Chandler. He’s been clearing hurdles on the board and off nearly every day since Feb. 22, 2014. That was the day he launched himself off a specialized board during dry-land training at a local gymnastics facility with a little too much strength.
“I over-rotated a front somersault to a front 1½ somersault,” Chandler said.
He landed head first, suffering a compression fracture of the C4 vertebrae and a fracture to the C5 spinal bone.
“When I hit, I heard a crunch and think I blacked out,” Chandler said. “I remember opening my eyes to darkness and screaming.”
He was rushed to the hospital, paralyzed from the neck down.
There, he received X-rays and CT scans, and the kind of stomach drop that only a grim medical prognosis can supply. Medical experts weren’t sure if he would be able to walk again.
Chandler first thought of his family. His 11-year-old son, so determined to be by his side that he refused to leave the hospital. His daughter, sleeping fitfully in the hospital chair next to him when he awoke in the darkened hospital room.
“I went through a lot of emotions that went from anger, [to] depression, [to] wondering how and why I survived,” he said. “Thinking, how was I going to take care of my wife and kids?”
Then, he thought of the water…the board…the freedom. He thought of the controlled chaos that he loved from the first time he flipped off of a springboard at age 6 in Crystal, Minnesota.
He thought of winning.
“All I remember, being pushed down the hall to surgery, was telling the doctors and nurses that I will compete in the next world championships.”
When he went into his emergency surgery, however, his surgeon, Dr. Guy Music with MD West One, cautioned against such lofty championship dreams.
“The initial prognosis was that my C4 was completely crushed, leaving me paralyzed and I was told that even with the surgery, there was no guarantee I would walk again. That I could come out a quadriplegic, paraplegic, or it could even be fatal if the surgery didn’t work.”
The doctors deemed the surgery a success, and Chandler started a long, slow recovery process.
He was angry, confused, leaning heavily into his belief in a higher power. But like the precision of his winning dive, he found hope in the process. Purpose in the details.
First came rehab. A grueling slate of drills and minutiae to inch him closer back to health.
“Going every day to physical therapy and pushing myself a little harder each day,” Chandler said of his goals at this time in his life. “I was getting strength back and balance back.”
He walked within a few short days, and was elated to be recovering, but itched for more.
“When Dr. Music took off the neck collar, he said my head would feel like a bowling ball on a wet noodle, which it truly did,” Chandler said. “Rebuilding the strength back gave me the feeling that I can do this.”
Chandler’s diving coach, Mike Retelsdorf, visited him in the hospital. Retelsdorf is a longtime instructor who coaches at the collegiate, professional, and club levels.
“At no time did I believe he would ever recover to where he is now,” Retelsdorf said. “He structured himself differently after the accident. I don’t think anyone could have told him what not to do.”
As a diver, Chandler needed to be all fulcrums and hinges. Bendable. Balanced. Fully in control of so many moving parts. Parts that needed to be recalibrated.
After months of pushing himself to the brink, he was ready. Not just to walk and function and go about his everyday life, but for more.
“Dr. Music called from his own cell phone, saying that the X-rays were where he wanted them and said he would clear me back to training and diving,” he said.
Eleven months after his accident, Chandler was back on the board.
He stood there for a minute, his toes gripping the familiar 20-inch-wide surface. “I walked down the board to my hurdle, it felt like I was in slow motion,” he said. “When I left the board, my brain was a little freaked out being back in the air again, but I felt so free.”
He dove in, baptized in that chlorinated water, and emerged with a smile on his face.
“His desire to get back was so strong, that I didn’t know what to do,” Retelsdorf said, chuckling. “I let the actions speak for themselves.”
And Chandler’s actions have done just that.
This article was printed in the January/February 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.