BRADENTON — It was just like old times.
Ryan Bergeron glided across Warner’s Bayou as Jared Beck drove the 21-foot sport boat, nodding as Justin Smith relayed the wakeboarder’s signals for more power.
Three boyhood pals. A fast boat. Smooth water on a beautiful day.“We’ve been doing this forever,” said Smith, 22.
Then, cutting left to right behind the boat, Bergeron attempted a flip and wiped out.
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He quickly surfaced, wiped the hair away from his face and grabbed the rope, ready to go again.
“He’s still got it,” said Beck, 21, smiling as he throttled up. “Never a doubt.”
Bergeron is a paraplegic.
You’d never know it watching him cutting across the boat’s wake.
“It’s definitely been difficult getting back into it,” the 22-year-old said. “But I’ve always been on the water so I figured I’d find some way to do it.”
A water skier at 5 and a show performer with Sarasota’s Ski-A-Rees at 13, Bergeron was paralyzed from his waist down after he hit a seawall during a show in Brazil last July.
He spent a month there recuperating from surgery, plus another five weeks rehabbing in Atlanta.
Two long months of uncertainty, indeed.
“Did I wonder, ‘Why me?’ Of course,” Bergeron said. “When it first happened I really didn’t think it was as bad as it was. I thought I’d be out of the water for a little while but I’d eventually get feeling back in my legs and I’d be walking again. It wasn’t until about a week after my accident I started realizing it could be a more permanent thing.
“I definitely had to talk myself into getting back. It was hard to get out of bed in the morning, but I never really gave up.”
The comeback started last October when, with doctor’s blessings, Bergeron e-mailed Ann O’Brine-Satterfield, who instructs “U Can Ski 2” for the disabled.
“Ryan said he needed to get back on the water ASAP,” she said. “He had helped me at a clinic before he got hurt.”
The irony wasn’t lost on Bergeron.
“I never would’ve imagined it,” he said. “I’m teaching someone to ski and months later I’m the one being taught.”
O’Brine-Satterfield didn’t have to do much teaching.
She got Bergeron into a “sitski” — a cage made of aircraft aluminum tubing that holds the body in a tuck position with the butt down and knees up — and he took to it naturally.
“After a couple of sessions, he was doing 360s,” O’Brine-Satterfield said. “He was amazing.”
“I had the mechanics in my head, and once I got back on the water I knew I was fine,” Bergeron said. “It’s not the same as it was before. I accepted that pretty quick, but this is what I want to keep doing.”
Not long after, Bergeron was back on Warner’s Bayou with his pals.
Mitch Bergeron bolted a sitski to his son’s old wakeboard, and taped velcro to its floor to stabilize the customized scuba-diving booties his son wears on the water.
“Doctors said take it easy at first and I did,” Ryan Bergeron said. “But now my back is healed up and although there’s some soreness from the jarring, it’s not bad for the most part.”
His resiliency impressed Larry Brunner, the Ski-A-Rees president.
“Getting hurt the way he did, getting right back on the horse, is incredible,” he said. “Ryan has shown more courage than you can imagine.”
His boyhood pals knew it all along.
“I knew once he hopped on that thing he’d be able to do everything he can. His life has been on the water,” Smith said. “Honestly, after he got hurt the first thing that came to my mind was — if anyone can come back, it’s Ryan Bergeron.”