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Defining event challenges notions about 'people in chairs'

Mark Zupan, a freshman starter for the Florida Atlantic University soccer team, did what he and his teammates always did after the team won -- or lost.

He went out and got drunk.

Around midnight one night, he "zombie-walked" out of the bar and wound up curled up, in a fetal position, passed out in the back of his best buddy's pickup truck.

An hour or two later, the buddy, Chris Igoe, also drunk and unaware that Zupan was in the back, crashed his truck into a fence, catapulting Zupan into the air, over a fence, through some branches and into a shallow canal.

Where he lay, partially submerged, unable to move, undiscovered for about 14 hours.

That mishap, which occurred on Oct. 14, 1993, led to Zupan becoming a quadriplegic who uses a wheelchair.

He also calls his accident an event that changed him as a man, in so many positive ways.

How many quads, he asks, have crowd-surfed at a Pearl Jam concert, sung onstage with Eddie Vedder, skydived, won a Paralympic medal in Athens, shaken hands with a U.S. president and chugged beer with Johnny Knoxville?

"In truth, my accident has been the best thing that could ever have happened to me. I'm not trying to be glib when I say this, or rationalize my mistakes, or offer you [any excuse]. What I am saying is that it has been the single most defining event of my life. And without it, I wouldn't have seen the things that I've seen, done the things I've done, and met so many incredible people."

He wouldn't have become a world-class athlete or cherished his family and friends the way he has, he adds.

"In other words, I wouldn't be me, plain and simple."

Zupan -- who spent six years of his childhood in Western New York -- pulls no punches in this book. He suggests that the politically correct should look elsewhere. He tells, sometimes in rather graphic detail, about his former partying and drinking. He admits to his own weaknesses, including his return to drinking after the accident, wanting to be like any other 19-year-old kid, and the night he swallowed a bottleful of old acne medicine.

He's not looking for universal approval in the way he looks at himself, and he doesn't mind if he shocks someone.

Hence, the title: "Gimp."

Zupan says you can call him a "cripple" or "disabled." The only term he hates being called is "handicapped." A handicap, in his mind, is something given to a person as an artificial advantage to compete. He doesn't want that.

"I can win on my own, both on and off the field," he says.

The reason for the title "Gimp" can be found in a passage on the comfort he feels in being with his new buddies from his quadriplegic rugby team.

"They had a certain swagger, and they casually referred to each other as gimps, co-opting what had once been a derogatory term for disabled people and defusing it by making it their own, the way blacks had done with [the N-word] and gays with 'fags.' "

Zupan, vowing after the accident that he'd be back on the soccer field in a year, takes us through his mental and physical battles to regain his ability to walk. That dream of playing soccer later yielded to his dream to excel as a quad rugby player.

About two years after the mishap, Zupan finally realized that he had progressed physically about as far as he could. Once almost fully paralyzed, he now could bench-press 200 pounds and walk close to three-quarters of a mile with crutches. Rather than fighting an impossible battle, to try to run again, he decided to focus on the life that was within his grasp, and that life happened to be in a chair.

A surrender? A surrender only to his desire to live a happy, fulfilling life, he says. Instead of concentrating on what he couldn't do, he now focused on how far he had come.

Zupan, who's featured in the movie "Murderball," a documentary about quad rugby, talks candidly about the everyday inconveniences and indignities of life in a wheelchair.

This book will challenge some stereotypes and misconceptions that many people have of the disabled; for example, being a quadriplegic means you have some impairment in all four limbs, not that you're paralyzed. The book will shock some people, too.

Zupan's throwing anything but a pity party here, and it seems as if he will succeed in what he set out to do.

He asks readers to forget everything they think they know about quadriplegics, and think of him as a human being and a competitor.

"My goal is that when you read about what I've gone through, it will change the way you think about people in chairs, about friendship and about life, because that's what it has done for me," he says.

Gene Warner is a veteran News reporter.




By Mark Zupan and Tim Swanson

HarperCollins, 276 pages, $24.95

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