By Bill Petzold
CARO — Scot Severn didn’t begin building a legacy as an elite athlete until 14 years after a lightning bolt stole the use of his legs.
Now the Caro resident and father of three is preparing to compete in his second Paralympic Games as the No. 1-ranked shot put, discus and javelin thrower in the United States.
In 2008, Severn competed at the Beijing Paralympics that took place in Beijing National Stadium. Dubbed the “Bird’s Nest” for its unique architecture, the $423 million facility was the centerpiece of the 31 Olympic venues. Severn said the venue was packed with spectators, and statistics collected at the Olympics showed attendance counts as great as 91,000 in the building.
“I don’t know if you’d say ‘starstruck,’ but it was pretty intimidating going in there,” Severn said. “To realize that you’re competing in the same venue the Olympians do is an honor. At Beijing I was seventh in discus and ninth in shot put. I had a bit of an equipment issue with my chair, because I hang onto this long pole (while throwing). I pull on that as I’m pushing forward with the shot, and even though I had trained with it for a month and a half, I bent the pole on the first throw. So then it was leaning back toward me, and I didn’t have the full pull. I still (set a personal record) and threw a national record. It wasn’t bad. Back then that was like 7.76 meters. This season I’ve thrown 8.43, which is a new PR.”
Severn’s training regimen includes three-hour workouts every other day, in addition to throwing practice. He can regularly be found working up a sweat at Caro’s State Street Fitness, which provides him with a free membership and sponsors him in the Paralympics.
“I actually trained a few times down in Lapeer, a friend of mine goes to a gym down there,” Severn said. “My massage therapist Jane Gemmell knows the guy that owns this place and hooked us up. She already had it worked out where he was going to give me a membership, and she takes care of me. Jane, I’ve been going to her since before Beijing, and she keeps my body … I tear it apart and she puts it back together.
The London Paralympics take place from August 29 to September 9, using the same venues built for the Olympics. Even if Londoners don’t know Scot personally, they’ll recognize his name.
“The last name carries a little bit of weight in England,” Severn said. “The Severn River runs right through London. I traced it back to a couple of relatives on the Gotham (the name is pronounced GO-thum) side, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard New York City called Gotham City, but part of that was because a couple of my relatives owned Central Park. One got in trouble, the other one went back to England to get him out of trouble and they never came back. It could have been a very different life. (New York) is still known as Gotham City, and that’s where (the name) comes from, my ancestors.
“We move into the (Olympic) village on August 26. They usually have a huge dining hall set up that’s filled with food from all over the world. At Beijing, the U.S. part of it was a McDonald’s — that was our contribution.”
In the midst of training for London, Severn celebrated his 44th birthday Friday, which he said was “too old.”
“There aren’t going to be too many Olympians at that age, I can tell you that,” Severn said. “But Paralympians it’s a little different, because they start at all different points of their life. Not everybody’s born with a disability, and they obtain it through life and that’s when they move into some other kinds of sports. You get guys all the time with spinal chord injuries in their late 20s and 30s, and those are the kind of guys that can train best, especially military.”
While Severn’s story is unique, he and his fellow Paralympians are bound by the common challenge they share. Severn was struck by a bolt of lightning in 1989 while a member of the Army Reserve.
“On was on guard duty up at Camp Grayling, our two weeks of annual training. We were about halfway through it. I remember the location; I remember where I was and that was about it.”
He married his wife Brenda in 1994, and together the couple has three children: Nicole, 13; Kyle, 11; and Colton, 10. While his wife and children are his primary motivation, they are not planning on joining him on the trip to London because school will start while Severn is in London.
“A friend of mine married (Brenda’s) sister back in 1990, and we were in the wedding together,” Severn said. “I can’t say we stood up together, but she stood up. We started going out after that and got married in ‘94. With three kids in school and she works with the school, it’s just kind of a distraction (for me while I’m competing) anyway. I try to soak it in. I don’t try to focus too much. I have the mentality that if you’re not having fun doing it, what’s the point? And I try to have fun, take something home with me. If I don’t take home a medal, I’m still taking something home.”
While Severn says he doesn’t have any unique routines or superstitions, he said he’s discovered a pre-event meal that has pushed his performance to new heights.
“I’ve got a thing with barbecued pulled pork right now,” Severn said. “I ate a sandwich down at a meet in Texas and threw my best discus of all season, and then I had one in the Thunder in the Valley Games about an hour before I threw and I went out and PR’ed and threw a new national record so … I tried it a couple times after and it didn’t work as well, so maybe it was just coincidence.”
Regardless of whether it’s the pork or the practice, Severn has traveled the world competing with the world’s premier athletes in field events and wheelchair rugby and has compiled an astounding résumé that includes Most Valuable Player awards, silver medals in the discus and shot at the Parapan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, and national records too numerous to list. He began participating in wheelchair sports in 2003 thanks to “peer pressure” from athletes such as Ray Brown of North Branch and Jeff Coupie of Essexville, and was inducted into the Michigan Athletes with Disabilities Hall of Fame as the Athlete of the Year for 2005. Earlier this year, Severn outperformed hundreds of athletes to earn a spot on Team USA.
Today, he remains the standard for excellence for American wheelchair athletes.
“Nationally, I’m No. 1 in all three events (shot, discus and javelin,” Severn said. “World rankings, right now I’m No. 2 in the world in shot, and I think I might be No. 3 or 4 in discus and No. 4 or 5 in javelin. Shot put’s probably my best. Javelin (was the hardest to learn), I still don’t know if I have that figured out. I don’t know if anybody does.”
Severn says his motivation has been primarily his children, as well as the prize money he earns to help support his family. He wants to leave a legacy that will make them proud and plans to continue competing as long as he’s able. He hopes to be ready for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, so his kids will be able to say there dad was a three-time Paralympian.
“It’s a big reason why I want to do it,” Severn said. “I don’t have a career per se, as far as a job, so I started thinking about it one day, ‘If they have career day at school, what are your kids going to say that you do?’
“Well, I got something now.”