Paralyzed Motorcyclists Back on the Track


Sparks flew as his handlebars slid across the pavement at Portland International Raceway, and Jemal Mfundshi, 44, knew it was time to bail. As his motorcycle slid away, Mfundshi spun off onto his back in another direction toward a concrete wall lined with tires and hay bales.

"As you ride, you always ride up to your limit and you're always trying to push that limit," Mfundshi said of his attempt to catch the leaders in the PIR race. "Apparently I was already at my limit and went past it on that corner."

It was Aug. 28, 1994, and it was the last time he would walk. Mfundshi suffered a C-6/7 spinal cord injury and was left a quadriplegic. Although he has limited use of his arms and hands, Mfundshi has no control from the chest down.

Nick Gilmer, 28, shares Mfundshi's passion for motorcycle racing. With different levels of severity, they share something else: They were paralyzed by motorcycle accidents.

Gilmer was left a paraplegic more than a year ago after he was thrown from his dirt bike during a camping trip in the hills of Clackamas County. Gilmer's T-12 vertebra burst, damaging his spinal cord and leaving him paralyzed just below his hips.

Despite their injuries, they share a desire to ride motorcycles again. In the months leading up to Aug. 12, Nick and Jamal's paths came together, and they returned to the curves at PIR. Despite his injuries and the obvious dangers that come during riding, Mfundshi likes to remind his detractors, "You can wrap yourself in bubble wrap, you can lay in bed, and bad things can still happen to you."

They have both spent hours in their shops modifying their motorcycles to allow them to ride. Each of the bikes is fitted with an electronic shifter that allows them to move through the gears with the touch of a switch on the handle bars. Over the past two years, Mfundshi has prototyped and fabricated his modifications including a set of retractable wheels that lower when he slows to prevent him from tipping over.

As the two pulled away from the starting line and with each lap, the small community of riders and vendors paused to applaud.

"It was really exciting to go down the front straight," Mfundshi said. "Grabbing gears. Going faster than I've gone in 19 years. For me, the most emotional aspect was coming through Turn 9. That's where I had my crash and that's where I became paralyzed. There's not really a lot of words that will accurately convey the emotions, but it was pretty intense."

Gilmer still has a dream: He wants to race in the AMA road races one day. "To be out there with the guys I've always looked up to. I don't care about winning races, he said. "I just want to be out there. Whether it's the bottom of the podium or the top. I just want to be up there and be a part of it. I love it so much."

Story by: Bruce Ely