Mike Trauner - This is Not a Sad Story
Retired Master Corporal Michael Trauner was on his way to the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo when the Covid-19 pandemic put a stop to his plans. Now he is in quarantine, unable to practice paracanoeing. Disappointed? Frustrated? Bitter? No. Trauner is busy Soldiering On.
Mike Trauner knows that life can change in an instant. On December 5, 2008, he was conducting a foot patrol in Afghanistan when a roadside bomb went off. Trauner lost both legs and severely injured both arms and hands in the explosion. His left hand had 25 broken bones and the right was only held in place by the glove which had melted to his skin. He remembers flying through the air and landing in a crater the size of a truck.
“When I raised my arms they were smoking,” he recalls.
At home in Pembroke, Ontario, his wife Leah Cuffe was tossing and turning in bed, tormented by an inexplicable sense of dread. At 3:43 a.m. her phone rang. It was the padre delivering the news.
“In the movies women fall to their knees and sob uncontrollably. It wasn’t like that for me. I was calmer than expected,” Cuffe remembers.
Minutes later there was a knock on her door and within a few hours Cuffe was on her way to Germany. When she arrived at the military hospital in Landstuhl, a team of some 30 people were waiting for her. She remembers being led to the only room with a Canadian flag hanging outside. Trauner was awake when she entered. “I am so sorry,” he said. Then he fell asleep.
As Cuffe stood there watching him, he looked like he was just resting. Then she noticed the nuts and bolts in the arms. And when the nurse fanned the sheets that had been covering the lower part of his body, Cuffe saw all at once the extent of the injuries.
“But he was alive, and that was all that mattered,” she recalls.
Trauner actually died twice while in recovery. Once in Afghanistan and once at the military hospital in Germany. Being able to keep any food down was also a struggle.
“I was told I may never walk again and I didn’t think I’d be able to do anything,” Trauner remembers.
Defying the odds, Trauner took his first steps only 29 days after the injury. A few months later, he completed the five km Army Run, unassisted.
“I trained my butt off to show everyone that I could do it. Afterwards when everybody was congratulating me, I remember thinking: congratulations for what? For walking 5 km? For doing what anybody should be able to do? I didn’t grasp at the time what a big deal it was.”
But fate wasn’t done with Trauner. The next few years brought new setbacks. Trauner’s right leg wasn’t healing properly and he began to develop wounds that just wouldn’t go away. After a few years he found himself at risk of losing the right knee as well.
“I was told that they could either take the knee or I would have to sacrifice some more of my arms in terms of blood vessels, arteries, nerve endings and good skin that could be transplanted.”
Trauner was essentially bedridden for two years following the next set of surgeries.
“I couldn’t brush my teeth, floss, or shave. People had to do everything for me. I couldn’t even go to the washroom. It was very frustrating. At the peak of my life I had become a defenseless baby again.”
In 2016, Trauner met Prince Harry at The Invictus Games in Orlando. Prince Harry personally challenged Trauner to join Team Canada and participate in the Invictus Games in Toronto 2017.
“I told him: Challenge accepted,” Trauner remembers. “It became the kick in the pants I needed to get going again.”
Mike Trauner has been breaking barriers ever since. Not only did he make the team, but he won two gold medals in indoor rowing at Invictus 2017. Then he mastered the sport of paracanoe, winning three gold medals with his team at the 2018 Ontario Sprint Cup, as well as a bronze medal at the ParaPanAmerican Canoe Championship in Dartmouth Nova Scotia and a bronze medal in São Paulo Brazil in 2019. That same year he was also awarded the Soldier On Unconquered Award. Devoting six full days every week to training and preparations, Trauner was set to take the Paralympics 2020 by storm.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic erupted and the accompanying social distancing measures prompted cancellations and postponements of events around the world – including the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo. For most athletes who have dedicated years in pursuit of their dream, the yearlong delay would be extremely disappointing, but Trauner remains incredibly positive.
“I see this as an opportunity to become even better,” he says, and adds that para-athletes may actually be better poised to deal with these types of setbacks.
“We’ve already been to hell in our lives. We know it’s not the end of the world.”
His wife Leah Cuffe, who has been instrumental in helping Trauner succeed, agrees:
“People tell me they are sorry, but this is not a sad story anymore. Just look at where he is now and where he is going!”
Trauner says he would be happy to support any Soldier On member out there who may be struggling, whether they are disappointed over postponed events or just feeling isolated in quarantine.
“Soldier On showed up at my trauma unit in Ottawa hospital two days after I got home from Germany and they have stayed with me ever since. If it wasn’t for Soldier On I wouldn’t be where I am today.”