ADRIAN – Mike Ballard is no rookie to accomplishing goals he sets for himself, and his drive proves it. Being paralyzed and training for the 2024 Paralympics is no easy task, but the adversity he has had to overcome shows he is ready to triumph any challenge thrown his way.
In the fall of 2003, Adrian College welcomed Mike Ballard on campus to continue his education in International Studies and Spanish while also playing baseball. By his junior year, he was elected president of Mortar Board, where he represented Adrian College at the national meeting.
Ballard was recognized by his baseball coach, Craig Rainey, as a leader who had a passion for his team, a focus to become a better player and an energetic mentality that he brought to practices and games.
Rainey specifically remembers when Ballard loaded up a couch atop his vehicle and headed to Appleton, Wisconsin to cheer on his team for the World Series.
After graduating from Adrian College in 2007, Ballard became a prominent educator for the New England Center for Children, teaching vocational education to teens with autism getting ready for their first job. In 2011, Ballard moved to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates after applying for a transfer within his company.
He described his work as just being “a good way to spend a day.” He said the transfer came after the need for adventure, travel, and chasing the check.
“Honestly,” he said, “it’s just a good spot to be. I mean, I’ve been on the beach all day!”
Also having a background in high school football and wrestling, Ballard thought it was only right to join the Abu Dhabi Harlequins rugby league team to get to know the people in the community.
Ballard’s friend and team captain, Eileen Siegel, noted that “he worked so hard, learned so much and was so coachable that they were able to bring him up to a competitive level.” Ballard became a starter on the team with former professional rugby players.
In 2014, Ballard was tackled during a high-level tournament game, resulting in a broken back that left him paralyzed. When calling Ballard the next day, Siegel said, “He had just broken his back and all he wanted to do was reassure everyone he loved that he’d be okay. That’s an extraordinary strength… and that’s who he is; constantly thinking of others.”
From there, Ballard endured surgeries, a medevac back to the United States and a year and a half rehabilitation process in Grand Rapids, Mich. at the Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital.
Ballard continued rehabilitation and confessed that the groundwork for his recovery was already laid. With a degree and eight years’ experience in special education and behavioral modification for those with disabilities, he said, “You would have to work very hard to find someone more prepared to go through what I went through.”
Siegel and others in the rugby community came together and started the Mike Ballard Foundation for the sole purpose to help Ballard in the recovery process.
“He is so loved that everyone wanted to help,” Siegel said.
After returning to Abu Dhabi in January of 2016, the foundation had built momentum but Ballard wanted to place the monies elsewhere, stating, “Rugby did this for me, let’s give it back to rugby.” The Mike Ballard Foundation teamed up with clubs and national teams to donate wheelchairs and rugby equipment to children in Madagascar.
That same summer, Ballard watched the 2016 Summer Olympics and was instantly intrigued on how to become a part of the Paralympics. As a Michigan native and previously being a kayak tour guide, he realized that kayaking would be his best opportunity. His vision was to get fit in 2017 and start training head-on in 2018. The end goal: 2024 Paris Paralympics.
“He doesn’t take challenges as negatives, he takes them as goals to achieve,” Siegel said.
In 2019, Ballard finished 13th overall at the World Cup in Poland, a non-Olympic year in which not everyone showed up. To be able to compete in the 2024 Paralympics, he will need to place in the top 25 at the World Championships.
Ballard attributed his success to keeping everything convenient. He said, “The harder you have to work to do something, the less it’s going to happen and the less enjoyable it’s going to be.” Ballard looked into apartments on the beach that had an indoor gym/pool and moved into one shortly after. He continued to persevere by getting an indoor workout machine and said, “When the pandemic hit and they said you couldn’t leave your house, I said, ‘Sweet, we’re good, I wasn’t leaving anyways.’”
The training is an “evolving process,” Ballard noted. He said it was all about, “Not ever overeating, overtraining, overdrinking, oversleeping and just overall being smart about the decisions on when to train and get on the water.”
He was quick to show appreciation to his apartment building staff that built a ramp to the water after staff noticed his continued effort to make it out each day.
When asked about his biggest accomplishment, Ballard took a long pause and said, “The race is an afterthought because you only race for four minutes in a year. It’s the morning swim, a noon kayak, getting showered off and having a nice coffee at the top of the ramp is my way of accomplishing the day.”
Ballard plans on staying in Abu Dhabi to continue his training for the 2024 Paralympics.
Coach Rainey said Ballard is still the same person he knew in college; fun loving and always having a good time.
“Life has thrown him a curveball, and he’s taken advantage of it. He’s taken his life in a different path and not let it be a setback or let it detour him from any goals he’s wanted to achieve,” Rainey said.
For more information about Adrian College, go online to adrian.edu.