Road to recovery

It had been three years since the BOLD wrestling fans rose to their feet at the state wrestling tournament at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul to cheer for Shawn Plumley.

It had been three years since the BOLD wrestling fans rose to their feet at the state wrestling tournament at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul to cheer for Shawn Plumley.

They rose to their feet again Jan. 20 in Olivia for the two-time state champion. This time, the boisterous crowd, many with tears welling up in their eyes, stood for nearly 10 minutes and cheered.

Plumley was home again. For the first time since an Aug. 3 motorcycle accident that left him in a coma for over a month, Plumley was back on center stage. With the wrestling mat that he so often found success on now serving as a backdrop, Plumley faced the fans and smiled from his wheelchair. His father, Lynn; mother, Kelly; and sisters, Jo and Kory; were all with him as they have been throughout the ordeal.

Several former and current wrestlers and coaches were in attendance on this night arranged by BOLD/Buffalo Lake-Hector wrestling coach Tom Gruhlke and boys basketball coach Bill Neubauer. Plumley was allowed a one-day pass from his rehabilitation at Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul to be honored before the BOLD vs. Canby match that night.

Plumley's former teammates from the 2002 and 2003 state tournament teams presented him with a huge photo that showed Plumley jumping into Gruhlke's arms after winning one of his state individual titles.


"This was a very special night for our family," said his father. "Wrestling fans, even opposing ones, are a close-knit group because they realize how demanding this sport is. Our family really appreciates all the support we've received."

The accident

Shawn and his father were working on his late grandfather's land less than two miles from their farm site 10 miles southeast of Bird Island. Around 6:30 p.m., they called it a day and Shawn hopped on his dirt bike and headed off in the direction of their home.

As he sometimes did, Shawn rode in the ditch. His had passed by the family home and continued riding. As best as anyone can determine, Shawn hit a culvert and possibly flew over the handlebars with the bike following behind him in the air.

Neighbors, coming upon the scene of the accident, found Shawn lying unconscious in the ditch, a little over two miles north of the Plumley home, and called for help.

Lynn had arrived home and was sitting down to eat with his wife. Shawn had eaten earlier and decided to go off riding.

Soon, the phone rang.

"It's the call, as parents, that you hope you never get," said Lynn. "We rushed to the scene and then I rode in the ambulance to the Renville County Hospital in Olivia. I thought Shawn was just knocked out because there weren't many injuries that you could see. He had a scrape on his shoulder and a black eye and that's all you could see."


But it was soon determined that Shawn was in much worse shape. En route to Renville County Hospital, medics called for a helicopter to airlift Plumley to North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale.

Once at North Memorial, Shawn was placed in an induced coma and had part of his skull removed to alleviate pressure from his brain swelling. He later slipped into a natural coma for nearly a month.

The slow recovery

It's been a slow and agonizing six months for the Plumley family. Shawn's recovery continues to progress at a slow speed. But he has come a long way already from the early 36-hour period when doctors were uncertain of his fate.

"The human spirit is stronger than you think," expressed Lynn. "A lot of things that we felt were so important before aren't so much anymore. You just try to pick out what is most important now and go from there. Obviously, Shawn's recovery is number one. Then we try to get done what we feel is most important and let the little things go.

"Kathy or I are with Shawn every day. Sometimes, we're both with him. Sometimes, our daughters are there. But we want to be there for him to help in his recovery."

Shawn awoke from his coma slowly as most patients do from a comatose state. It's not like medical shows on television where a comatose patient suddenly awakes and begins talking.

"He was trying so hard to talk," recalls Lynn. "You could see his lips moving, but nothing was coming out."


Then one day, while the family was in his room, Kory was playfully pulling on his bed sheet and Shawn would pull it back. Shawn's leg slightly slid out from under the sheet and Kory, not expecting a response, said "You're not going to kick me are you?"

And Shawn spoke for the first time since the accident, sending shivers down the spines of family members.

"Wanna bet?" he asked rhetorically.

Quickly, the family gathered around Shawn's bedside and asked him to say it again. He did, only much softer this time.

Medical personnel were alerted, but, despite efforts to get him to repeat it a third time or to say anything, Shawn didn't speak again for roughly 10 days.

Shawn stayed at North Memorial Hospital until the first week of September when he was moved to the Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul to begin rehabilitation.

He spent his 21st birthday on Sept. 16 there.

On Nov. 8, he was transferred back to Renville County Hospital to recover from surgery and complications after having the bone flap placed back on his skull. On Jan. 4, he returned to Bethesda Hospital for more rehabilitation.


Some days, he shows progress and others he doesn't. He still has limitations and may have for the rest of his life. He can stand alone and walk with assistance for short periods, but is wobbly and tires easily. He has short-term memory loss and his response to questions and his speech is slow, but improving.

Still, he's further along in his recovery than he was initially ever expected to be. And there is always hope for more.

"We really rely on faith," said Lynn, an assistant coach for BOLD for nearly 20 years until he stepped down this season to be with his son. "We ask God every day to help with Shawn's recovery. And the support we have received from family, his wrestling family and friends has been tremendous. It's hard to think of getting through it without all of them.

People often ask us what they can do and we always tell them to just keep praying for Shawn."

Big brother

For his younger sisters, the ordeal has made it hard to concentrate on school and any activities they are involved in. Jo (her real name is Kathryn JoLynn) is a sophomore at the University of Minnesota. Kory is a senior at BOLD High School and is currently playing on the basketball team.

"Obviously, it's really hard to cope with everything that my brother and my family are going through right now," Jo said. "But we all try to stay positive and focus on all the improvements Shawn is making. I've really learned to appreciate the smaller things in life; like the ability to sit down as a family and have a meal or to be together for the holidays. I really admire how Shawn is handling the situation, and I'm very proud of him."

When Kory first saw Shawn, she felt it was like a dream.


"Handling this process is hard," she said, "but I always think it could be worse. Our family tries to stay positive and we lean on each other. Since Shawn went to Bethesda, I only get to see him on weekends.

But every weekend I come to see him, I can see the steps he makes in everything he does."

Donning a helmet

Shawn rarely wore a helmet when riding his dirt bike despite constant pleadings from his parents. For some reason, he chose to put it on this day. That wise decision likely saved his life as his head took the brunt of the fall.

"We're just lucky he had his helmet on," Lynn remarked. "There are a lot of questions about what happened, but at this point we just thank God he is still with us."

A mat standout

Plumley was a standout wrestler for BOLD (now BOLD/Buffalo Lake-Hector), winning two state titles and helping the team place fifth in 2002 and winning the Class AA state title in 2003.

"Shawn is one of the best wrestlers I've ever had," said Gruhlke, who has spent countless hours with Shawn and his family in the hospital. "He was such a competitor and is continuing that fighting spirit in his recovery."


Plumley finished his prep career with a 162-25 record. He wrestled two seasons for Southwest Minnesota State Unversity before the accident. He advanced to the NCAA Division II tournament his sophomore year, finishing 20-14 at 157 pounds.

What lies ahead

Shawn will continue to rehabilitate at Bethesda for two more weeks and then be re-evaluated. The family is looking into getting him into the Courage Center in Golden Valley where he can receive more therapy and continue working toward a goal of being on his own again some day.

Knowing the type of competitor he is, Shawn likely will continue to progress.

His memory may never be what it once was. But the heart of a champion will forever be present.

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