George Leichtweis, the owner of Modern Skate & Surf in Michigan, says skateboarding is one of the few sports where it’s just you versus yourself – the frustratingly glorious battle of trying, trashing and then landing a trick one day, only to attempt to out-do yourself later.
On any given night in his park, there’s a cacophonous symphony of urethane wheels slapping concrete floor. More often than not, there’s also the rumbling roll of Nick Mullins’ skateboard as it glides back and forth on the 1.8m ramp.
Modern Skate & Surf is Mullins’ known turf, and many skateboarders and inline skaters paused to watch him own it one recent night.
“Now he’s doing just ridiculous stuff,” Leichtweis said. “He does some of the most amazing stuff I’ve ever seen on a halfpipe.”
Mullins has always been good, and he’s been getting better. He attributes that to not having to think so much anymore about how he can’t see his board or the ramp ahead of him.
The 25-year-old has been blind for several years now, so skateboarding is back to Mullins versus Mullins instead of Mullins versus blindness, or Mullins versus the near-deadly bacterial infection that left him without his sight.
The battle to regain his footing and his spirit, Mullins said, began with deciding he didn’t want to be defined by an illness anymore.
Even if a skateboarding accident nearly killed him, he wasn’t about to give up the sport that made him excited to be alive.
Mullins figured he was dying when he called his father one summer day in 2009.
By the time a doctor correctly diagnosed him with Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), the then 18-year-old was – in his words – “out.”
After a survival flight from the University of Michigan Health System brought Mullins from a Toledo-area hospital to Ann Arbor, his father, Jimmy Mullins, spent a night in the hospital’s chapel calling family.
He was sure his son wouldn’t make it through the night.
Nick Mullins was in septic shock by the time he hit the intensive care unit.
“Nick was so tough,” Jimmy Mullins, 57, said.
The bacterial infection caused severe pus-filled abscesses in his lungs and multi-system organ failure.
During the one-and-a-half months he was heavily sedated and undergoing neuromuscular blockades to paralyse him while he received treatment for MRSA, he couldn’t have known that he had suddenly become the nationally renowned skateboarder he had always hoped to be.
It would be awhile before he realised that videos of him skateboarding had gone viral and professional skateboarders were rooting for his return.
Even his doctors remember hearing comments from skateboarders across the country and seeing videos of Mullins skating.
He had just escaped a death sentence, but friends said he was still talking about skateboarding.
“I weighed 40kg, just literally didn’t want to talk to anyone. I couldn’t eat. I had to put myself in my own rehab,” Mullins said. “It was difficult, I couldn’t see. Everyone was there for me, but I didn’t even know. I had no idea what happened.”
Mullins was blind – save for a small part of the peripheral vision in his left eye. He had severe lung damage.
Jimmy said the boy lying in the hospital bed hardly looked like Nick.
Then, a few months later, he saw tough-guy Nick return. The always-independent son was standing on his skateboard in the middle of their family driveway in Toledo.
“That’s when I knew it wasn’t the end,” Mullins said. “I could eat again, I could be myself.”
Symptoms from MRSA typically begin with painful, pimple-looking bumps that are warm to the touch. Community-associated MRSA can spread more easily among athletes like skateboarders, who are frequently dotted with open wounds from previous falls.
In Mullins’ case, doctors confirmed he had severe MRSA necrotising pneumonia with acute respiratory distress syndrome. Mullins also had severe hypoxemia – meaning he was oxygen-deficient – and hypercarbia, or abnormally elevated levels of carbon dioxide in his blood, in addition to acute kidney injury and septic shock.
Dr Robert Hyzy, medical director of the critical care medicine unit with University of Michigan Health System, remembers seeing Mullins improve and thinking that doctors had won the case. They brought Mullins out of sedation and realised he couldn’t see.
Though loss of sight isn’t a common outcome of MRSA, Dr Hyzy said it could have been a result of bacterial blood travelling to his retinal artery.
“When he lost his vision, I thought he might not be able to skateboard,” Dr Hyzy said.
In 2009, Mullins was skating non-stop, and professional skateboarding companies were beginning to notice. They sent him products, which is like a nudge to keep skating – produce more, and people will be watching.
Mullins said he found skateboarding when he was about 10, while growing up in the Toledo area. He tried everything else that was part of skate park culture, too: inline skating and BMX biking were in the fray. Something about skateboarding just stuck.
Jimmy Mullins said he realised his son had become dedicated when he started winning competition after competition. Nick Mullins was also driving up to Michigan regularly to visit Modern Skate & Surf.
Things with the sponsor-me tape were fast-tracked after Mullins became sick. Many skateboarders didn’t know exactly what had happened, just that he might die. Mullins’ friend Steve Staffan took a summer’s worth of footage and quickly edited Mullins’ tape and put it online.
The video wound up becoming an impromptu eulogy to Mullins’ rising career when friends weren’t sure whether he would survive. It went viral and was posted to the Berrics – a successful skateboarding website that mostly features professional clips – and soon garnered attention across the county. Mullins said he didn’t fully understand at the time just how well-known his name had become.
He did know, though, that the Berrics and others were raising money for his hospital bills and were selling merchandise that said “1 percent” – Mullins’ initial survival rate. They wanted to see him come back.
A few weeks after he got out of the hospital, Staffan filmed an interview with Mullins and posted it to YouTube. Mullins is skinny and pallid in the video. He said he’d be back on a skateboard within three to six months. In 2014, Mullins posted his own video.
“I’m Nick Mullins, I’m 23 years old, and I’m considered legally blind,” he told the camera, smiling and wearing sunglasses.
“I took a short break from skateboarding,” he added. “Now I’m back skating, having a lot of fun. Skateboarding every day, staying positive and happy.”
Leichtweis said Mullins has become somewhat of a regional legend. Sometimes people forget he’s blind when they see him skate, or at least think he’s regained his sight.
“I tell people, ‘Go up this ramp and close your eyes and drop in.’ Nobody would do that,” he said. “He’s become quite a legend around here because he’s very talented, and he didn’t allow his issues with not seeing to inhibit the way he looks at life. That alone shows an example to all the younger kids here.” – Detroit Free Press/Tribune News Service/Emma Ockerman