June 7, 2003
My toughest battle!
By BRET HART -- For SLAM! Wrestling
People often ask me which match was my all-time toughest? Well, let me tell you about it.
During the past few weeks, I've done several speaking engagements, two in Australia, one in New Zealand and one in Thunder Bay, Ont. A year ago, I wouldn't have thought it possible.
Last June, when I had my stroke, I never quite understood that it was nearly fatal. I've only recently realized that. Now I count my blessings that not only am I alive but that I've actually recovered enough to enjoy life.
I remember a nurse who stopped in my room at night to puff my pillow when the entire left side of my body was completely paralyzed and I lay there struggling to comprehend what had happened to me. She told me, "You must find the good in all this. It happened for a reason. Now is your time to show your greatness by overcoming all of this -- and you will, Bret Hart, you will!" I've not forgotten her kind words and I think of her often.
I spent last summer in a wheelchair dismissing so many things from my life, unsure if I'd ever be able to do them again -- or if I'd even feel like doing them. For my entire adult life, I'd been a professional athlete striving for perfection. Now, I couldn't even smile or wink. Even my acting ambitions were dashed and the thought of simply posing for a picture made me want to hide my head in the ground. There was no guarantee I'd ever get any of it back.
A resolve built up in me, slow but steady, to rise up from the wheelchair! I set goals for myself ... to move my hand, my arm, to stand, to walk ... to ride my bike again (with a damn helmet this time and forever after!), to drive my car ... And I did! The best part of my recovery came in the first six months.
Now approaching the one-year anniversary of my stroke, I look back and I cannot believe the things I pushed myself to do. At the same time, there were things I declined doing, such as many offers for various appearances. I just didn't feel much like the Hitman. I always thought the last image fans have of you is the one that remains -- and I didn't like this visual one bit.
A lot went into rebuilding my super-hero-sized confidence. Just in the past few months, being treated like one of the boys by Tie Domi and the Toronto Maple Leafs certainly went a long way. Encouraging words from Muhammad Ali couldn't help but sink in. I went to the New Orleans Jazz festival with my close friend Aaron Neville and he introduced me to none other than Bob Dylan. A few days later, I accompanied Aaron to the funeral of blues great Earl King. I saw musicians dressed in black, carrying open black umbrellas, parade through the streets of New Orleans playing soulfully. It made me reflect on so many of my wrestling friends who have lately gone. At that moment, it dawned on me how lucky I was to even be alive -- let alone out and about making more memories.
Next thing you know, I was riding a bike along the Yarra River in Melbourne, Australia. A year ago, I would not have thought it possible in my wildest dreams. A wrestling promoter asked me if I'd like to come over and sign some autographs -- and maybe say a few words from the ring. Like being in some hazy time warp, I found myself hanging out with some of my old wrestler pals -- and it was good!
But, the big question on my mind was if I was ready to get in the ring and say a few words? It may not sound like much to you but to me, it was huge. Just walking to the ring -- climbing through the ropes -- that alone was a very big thing. I was worried my limp would be noticeable. What would people think of The Hitman? What if I got so choked up that I couldn't talk? Strokes do that to you, they make you wear your emotions on your sleeve sometimes -- and usually at the worst times!
In Sydney, on May 21, my music played and my heart pounded as I gingerly walked down the ramp. My mind adjusted to the idea that I was once again walking to a ring and my fans were screaming. By the time I climbed into the ring, memories of every great match I'd ever had spun through my head and my emotions hit me -- hard. My throat clamped shut and my chest grew so tight I could barely get out something like, "Thank you for having me. It's too hard for me to talk. Good bye."
I lost my first match back. As understanding as everyone was, I was so disappointed in myself.
Two days later, I was back in Melbourne, backstage again. I was terrified. I feared I was not the Hitman the fans knew and loved any more. I was uplifted by many of the wrestlers, especially by a merry band of midgets -- who insisted I'd do fine.
There it was again, my music. The long, hard walk to the ring -- and the chanting crowd. I took my time. I sat down on a stool in the centre of the ring and told the crowd this moment was my toughest challenge ever. I stayed cool and spoke from the heart, asking them to give some thought to some of my wrestling friends who recently departed. The British Bulldog. Mr. Perfect. And Miss Elizabeth. It was just about the fourth anniversary of my brother Owen's death and I told them I knew he would be proud to see me sitting there talking to them.
And in that moment, I saw it ... I was a survivor!
Bret (Hitman) Hart wasn't a character invented by a bunch of writers. I'm a real person who has endured! Unlike too many of my peers, I'm still here to talk about it. Amazingly, people are still listening!
I had just won my first big match since having a stroke -- and it was the toughest bout I'd ever had!
I left the ring and high-fived my way back to the dressing room where I was congratulated by the rest of the wrestlers.
I eventually ended up in Thunder Bay at a sports celebrity charity dinner. I stood at a podium in front of 500 people in a banquet hall and found myself saying how people will always remember me pulling myself up off the mat when taking a beating from some much bigger foe and then courageously fighting back -- with my fans cheering me on to victory. Almost one year after my stroke, I can see that part of my life really hasn't changed.
I'm beginning to realize God gave me this challenge so I could become the hero I always portrayed myself to be.