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The dull rattle of 335 pounds sounds out as elementary school principal Jim McHugh unracks the bar. His upper back, oak thick from years on the wrestling mat locks into the bench like a vise. The rep begins. Nearly two times his bodyweight descends, pauses and defies the natural laws of gravity. McHugh barks out an emphatic “hell yeah” as the bar crashes back into the rack.
From start to finish the average max effort bench press takes about three seconds to complete. For Jim McHugh seven years ago, three seconds changed everything. A violent head on car accident led to 14 surgeries, removal of two feet of his large intestine and nearly losing his right leg.
September 6, 2007 was set to be the first day of Jim’s career. With his morning routine finished, Jim hopped into his 2005 GMC Sierra and made the 12-minute trek to work. A mile into the commute things changed in a heartbeat. “I was coming around a turn with a slight incline. I had seconds to react and I just braced down for impact.”
A driver suspected of being under the influence veered over the double line and hit Jim’s automobile head on.
4,000 pounds of truck had hurdled into McHugh’s Sierra at 60mph. The impact of the other vehicle had folded the front end of his SUV like an accordion. Inside the cabin, his fingers were dislocated from the force of the steering column and the engine block was now in his lap.
Approximately 40 minutes passed until first responders were able to use the Jaws of Life to open the mangled wreckage and get Jim into an ambulance. “I was wide awake until they rushed me to the ER. I don’t remember much of that.”
The engine block had left Jim’s abdomen with tremendous trauma. Two feet of his large intestine, his spleen and his appendix were removed. Once his internal injuries had stabilized the medical crew turned their attention to his legs. Both had endured substantial fractures.
“I remember them talking about how they didn’t know whether or not they could save my right leg. There was a 20% chance of keeping it. The team of doctors that happened to be on that day saved my life.”
Rods were placed in both limbs to keep the shins in place and expedite healing.
For Jim, a lifelong athlete, conventional physical therapy practices weren’t his cup of tea. “They kept trying to get me to lift my leg with a band. I could lift it without the band! I said screw this lets walk.” Though able to move again, Jim didn’t feel exactly right. A bone infection had settled into the tibia and fibula on the right leg. The rods that had been inserted in the initial surgery were removed and his leg was placed into external fixators. Jim spent the entire month of March in the hospital, attempting to rid the bone of the infection. At this point the McHugh didn’t know if the limb could be saved.
Fourteen total surgeries later the infection was cleared and the right leg began to heal. Finally, after seven months in fixators and an incredible amount of physical, mental and emotional stress McHugh was out of the woods.
Thanks to consistent strength training, Jim is actually stronger now than he was before the accident.” Benching in the mid 300s and performing full squats with legs that were immobilized for almost a year defies what people thought he could accomplish.
“I do better in the weight room now than when I was thirty; everything you read says that shouldn’t be happening. Part of it is that I think about people saying you can’t, that stuff kind of drives me a little bit.” Jim was recently asked to speak to a group of local high school athletes; he notes “My topic was mental toughness. I kinda like that.”
Modest when recalling what he went through, Jim says, “It’s not a choice anyone would ever choose, but anybody would have done the same. We just rise to life’s challenges. I don’t feel special because I survived. It was forced upon me and I just dealt with it. I do believe that being physically and mentally fit for as long as one possibly can is absolutely critical.”
Former student Justin Luther sums up Jim’s attitude nicely.
“He seemed like we was in a good mood every time I saw him. I think his perseverance set a really good example for kids and even other teachers about getting through tough times, and he’s pretty much a total badass.”
The Tao of McHugh, though short and simple, is as profound as any deep eastern philosophy. “Just get after it,” he says with a wry smile. “Now let’s go lift.”