Tackling Impossible Goals

Lessons from the biker with a prosthetic leg

image of a person jumping across a gap between "im" and "possible" in the word "impossible"

It always seems impossible until it’s done. 

– Nelson Mandela

When I discovered this quote, it reminded me of Jack.*

We met one month after his life-threatening motorcycle accident. I was his physical therapist, there for his initial evaluation. As I entered the room, he sat leaning back in the chair with his walker standing at the right. His prosthetic leg leaned against the wall on the left.

I noticed excessive swelling under the compression wrap on his residual left leg. It appeared that he couldn’t use his prosthesis due to the swelling.

Jack smiled and rose from his chair as I entered the room. I stepped toward him to meet his outstretched hand. We introduced ourselves as we shook hands.

He sat back in the chair and explained how his injury happened. Jack was riding his Harley Davidson Road King Custom out of a parking lot when a car struck him on the left side. The impact was so forceful that it hurled him and the bike several yards down the street.

When it stopped, the bike trapped his left leg under its weight. The trauma surgeons fought to save his leg, but the damage was too severe. They stabilized his left femur fracture with a titanium rod but couldn’t preserve the lower left leg.

Two weeks after his surgery, he contracted an infection in the left knee that required another procedure and IV antibiotics. This complication caused extreme limitations in his left knee range of motion.

As I started his physical examination, he leaned in and said, “You should know that I already ordered my new bike, and it’ll be here in 6 months.” He shared his plan to ride on two wheels again – without a trike kit. The only adaptive equipment he agreed to use was a hand shifter since he couldn’t manage the gears without his left foot. 

Jack maintained direct eye contact as he spoke. His stare was unwavering and intense. His voice was calm but assertive. He intended to tackle this goal with or without me. 

He worked hard to improve his strength, balance, flexibility, and endurance over the next six months. We created exercises that simulated riding and maneuvering a heavy motorcycle. He exhibited intense determination and pushed himself through every session. He had setbacks, but he kept going.

When his new Harley arrived, we broke down each step required to return to riding safely. We created a test to demonstrate his capabilities that included activities like:

  • Put the bike on and off the kickstand
  • Roll it backward out of a parking space
  • Regain control when the bike tipped too far to one side
  • Ride around the parking lot and stop at stop signs

Jack passed the tests and returned to riding his Harley on two wheels eight months after his accident.

The Lessons

Jack’s achievement was miraculous. I’d never seen a case like his in my career. 

His condition was complex. He had a left femur fracture stabilized with a rod, a postoperative infection in his left knee, and a below-knee amputation. The excessive swelling in the residual limb also slowed healing and limited his ability to wear the prosthesis.

Adding to the challenge, he weighed 160 pounds and had to maneuver a 750-pound motorcycle.

Jack overcame all of these issues. He beat the odds and achieved his impossible goal. How did he do it?

In deconstructing his case, six core principles stood out. Each played a significant role.

1. Mindset Shift: Adopting the proper mindset is crucial for tackling impossible goals. You must believe in the possibility of success and develop a growth-oriented attitude. Jack BELIEVED he would ride on two wheels again.

2. Determination and Persistence: Impossible goals require unwavering determination and relentless persistence. When obstacles and setbacks arise, determination keeps you moving forward and leads to breakthroughs. Jack showed up literally and figuratively in each session. He pushed himself to complete every activity I put in front of him.

3. Stress Management: Pursuing an impossible goal can be stressful. Effective stress management techniques help you make rational decisions and stay focused. Losing a limb can lead to depression, anxiety, grief, and PTSD. To avoid this, Jack socialized with friends, repaired motorcycles, and visualized riding his new Harley.

4. Positive Habits: Positive habits like setting routines, staying organized, and seeking support create a conducive environment for working on challenging goals. They provide structure and consistency. Jack incorporated functional exercises and balance activities into his daily routine. The extra work made him stronger and improved his stability faster than if he’d only exercised during the therapy sessions.

5. Overcoming Limiting Beliefs: Many people label goals as “impossible” due to limiting beliefs. Identifying and challenging these beliefs, then replacing them with empowering beliefs, is a vital step in achieving big goals. Jack ignored the narrative that riding on two wheels again was impossible.

6. Practical Exercises: Practical exercises work on skills and knowledge needed to achieve the goal. The key is building the capabilities required to succeed. Jack performed physical therapy exercises to restore his strength and stability, but he also practiced technical skills for riding and controlling the motorcycle. He learned to use the hand shifter and practiced using the kickstand.

It’s Your Turn

A few weeks after Jack finished physical therapy, a loud rumbling sound shook the windows of the clinic gym. The noise got louder and drowned out all conversations. I went to the window to find the cause. 

It was Jack.

He docked his mechanized beast in a parking space and waited as I walked out to greet him. Seated on his Harley, he looked like a leather-clad version of Alexander the Great on his steed.

We talked for several minutes. Jack said the surgeon was shocked when he arrived on his motorcycle for his follow-up appointment.

After our conversation, he lifted the bike from the kickstand and confidently backed it out of the parking space. His control was so effortless that no one would believe he had a prosthetic leg. He raised the visor of his helmet, thanked me again, and rode off.

Jack’s remarkable story proves we can achieve goals that seem impossible. What impossible thing do you want to achieve? How can you implement the six principles he used?

The journey is accessible to anyone. It starts with a single step and the unwavering belief that you can achieve it. 

So, what’s your audacious goal? When will you take that first step towards making it a reality? 


Tackle your impossible goals!

*Note: This is a pseudonym to protect the patient’s anonymity.