Jim Unger

Jim Unger's gymnastics students loved his Spider-Man trick -- where he'd fly from a trampoline and appear to stick to the wall, 12 to 14 feet above the floor.

Courtesy photo

The man who taught thousands of children to fly -- and to vault, to tumble and spin -- is trying to teach himself how to walk again.

But first he must learn to crawl.

Twice a week, Jim Unger rehearses in the shallow end of the pool, buoyed by the water. He gets on his hands and knees and lifts a leg up behind him, sets it down, lifts the other.

“If I can get that strong on land, I’m going to go through the same type of training a baby does to learn to walk.”

Which is all the 61-year-old former All-American gymnast has wanted to do since he was thrown from his bike and woke up, paralyzed, nearly three years ago. Even from his hospital bed in intensive care, he vowed he would walk.

The goal led him to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, where he went to rehab five days a week for nearly two years. It led him to New Mexico, 16 times so far, for acupuncture. It led him to the shallow water. It led a nonprofit to donate more than $40,000 in equipment so he can try to get stronger at home.

It helped him find hope in the subtlest of muscle movements -- the wiggling of his toes, the flexing of his leg muscles and the pointing of his feet, a pose familiar and comforting to a lifelong gymnast.

And this month, that will to walk will force him to close the gymnastics school he's operated for more than a third of century.

* * *

He does the math in his head: He had a school on Old Cheney for five years, then three years across from the penitentiary and, for the past 27 years, this gym on South 58th.

Before all of that, he taught at the university, requiring his students call him Mr. Unger, so he'd seem older than he was.

And if he saw 250 new gymnasts a year, that's what? He thought about it. Maybe 10,000 students in his career?

“Teaching's not work for me. It's my natural thing to do. It made it fun for me to see them having fun.”

For years, he coached competitive gymnastics, training future collegians, traveling to meets, putting in hours. Rewarding work, but challenging and frustrating, too. So in 1988, he closed his Lincoln School of Gymnastics and opened Jim Unger's Gymnastics.

There, he focused on recreation, building confidence, and welcoming kids of all ages and, more importantly, all abilities.

“The reason I think the place is so special is they focus on gymnastics being fun. Taking the competition side out of it allows the kids to see it in a different way,” said Lindsey Bahe, who was 5 when she started training with Unger at his old school.

She was devastated when he announced a few years later he was closing that gym.

“I was very sad thinking of where I was going to have to go to keep that sort of environment that Jim had, the fun and silliness but also skill-building and development of yourself. I think what he built since then has been phenomenal.”

She joined his new school as an instructor in high school and college. And she'd hoped her three kids would share the same experience. Her two sons have trained there since they were each 2; her 18-month-old daughter would have started soon.

It wasn't uncommon to see kids emerge from classes red-cheeked, flush from a workout, still giggling from the fun.

But there were tears last week, when Shannon Unger handed out notes announcing the school would close after the spring session. The older kids -- fourth-graders on up -- understood what they were reading, she said.

“It was horrible,” Shannon said. “We had some crying.”

The couple had just started thinking about retirement before the accident. But even in his late 50s, Unger was teaching full time. He could still keep up with the kids, still wow them with a double twisting back flip off the trampoline.

After the accident, after his two months in the hospital and all of the rehab sessions that followed, he rarely went beyond the school's entrance. He didn't want his 350-pound wheelchair damaging the gym's spring-loaded tumbling floor. He wouldn’t have been much help, he said.

Plus, he was busy.

“I just wanted to spend more time focusing on getting better.”

* * *

Shannon Unger has been busy, too.

She took over the school, developing lesson plans, performing administrative duties, moving mats and equipment around. At the same time, she was learning what it meant to take care of her husband.

They bought a new house better suited to Jim and his wheelchair. They bought a van. She drives him to his physical therapy appointments, his chiropractor, his acupuncturist in New Mexico. At night, she wakes every two hours to turn him.

“She’s my biggest supporter, my biggest helper,” he said. “But she’s had to wear every hat, and everything’s been tugging on her.”

She managed it all for more than two years. It helped that Jim was spending so much time -- often five days a week -- at Madonna; Shannon would take him there in the morning and head to the school to prepare for that day’s classes.

Jim was getting stronger at Madonna, he said. Six months after his accident, he was upright again, walking on a treadmill that supported his weight and propelled his legs. Then he was wrapped in a bionic suit, battery-powered robotic legs helping him push a walker around the hospital.

“I could actually walk down the hallway with it. I’d typically do 600 steps during a session,” he said. “It was a real good thing.”

But then his relationship with Madonna wasn't so good. Starting last fall, his appointments were cut, his time with the high-tech equipment taken away. The Ungers suspect Madonna reported a plateau in Jim's progress to his insurance company, which limited his benefits.

“I have a really bad taste in my mouth,” Shannon said. “But I know they do a lot of good for a lot of people.”

It's unclear why Madonna offered him fewer rehab sessions: A hospital spokeswoman said she couldn't comment because of patient confidentiality laws.

But this was about more than hurt feelings. This posed a practical problem.

“That was pretty much the turning point where I decided there’s no way I can run the gym and get Jim the therapy he needs,” Shannon said.

* * *

They tried to find a buyer, someone to continue the tradition of recreation-based gymnastics. Jim would have been happy to mentor the new owner, to share what he knew in his head, even if he couldn't demonstrate it on the floor.

They talked to their instructors, thought they were approaching a deal, but it didn't work out.

So instead, they're searching for someone interested in mountains of gym mats, trampolines, pommel horses, parallel and uneven bars, balance beams. They need it all out by June 11, when the new building owner closes on the property.

Their last class is May 21.

“We have nothing but gratitude to the people and employees who have supported us over the last 35 years -- especially these last few years,” they wrote on the school's Facebook page.

Bahe, who was crushed as a child when Jim closed his competitive gym, felt something similar when she heard the news.

But she understood.

“I want them to do what's going to make them happy and do what they need to do to get Jim back where he wants to be,” she said. “If anyone's going to recover from this, it's going to be him.”

He's trying, still. The Nebraska Greats Foundation, former Huskers who provide medical and emergency help to other former Huskers, gave him a high-tech exercise bike that uses electrodes to fire his legs forward and build strength, and an electrical stimulator for his hands. Easily more than $40,000 in gear, he estimated.

Between his new home workouts and his time in Bryan's LifePointe pool, he'll be exercising at least four hours a day, trying to keep the pledge he made from his hospital bed nearly three years ago.

“I truly think it’s not going to be much longer. I’m going to get up on my feet and walk.”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter.

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