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He rarely rode his bike to work.

But Jim and Shannon Unger had just finished the long drive back from Phoenix -- retirement house-hunting -- and his truck was low on gas, and the night was cool and he needed to get his gymnastics school ready for fall classes.

It was just a few blocks, anyway. All downhill.

He went off the road and over the handlebars near the bottom of the hill on 56th Street, flying through the dark toward the ravine, his face slamming a tree and his neck snapping back, damaging his vertebrae, stretching his spinal cord.

And silencing the legs that had propelled him for years -- as a state champion gymnast at Lincoln Southeast High School, then as Nebraska’s first All-American and, for the past four decades, as a coach to thousands of young gymnasts.

“He had a gash on his head, a broken nose, a broken orbital bone around his eye socket,” said his daughter, Jamie. “He had stitches on the inside of his lip; he had bit through his lip, and there was so much blood and dirt, they thought he was chewing tobacco.”

But this was the worst: “They’re saying he has a pretty low chance of ever walking again.”

* * *

His students have always called him Mr. Unger, a tradition he started when he started teaching as a college student, so he would seem older.

And his students have always loved Mr. Unger's Spider-Man move: He’d spring up from the trampoline and seemingly stick sideways to the wall, 12 to 14 feet from the floor. The illusion would last for a second or two.

“I was still jumping and flipping with all those kids,” the 58-year-old said Wednesday. “I’m going to miss that, but I’m going to see it again.”

He’s propped up in his hospital bed in the intensive care unit. He has about 100 stitches in his face. He can move his arms and shrug his shoulders, but he has little feeling below his armpits.

His legs move and shift beneath the sheets, but that’s all involuntary.

Shannon, his wife of 28 years, is in the room with him.

“The thing that gets me is for Jim to get hurt on a bike when he did all of these crazy things in gymnastics.”

* * *

Jim Unger had strong legs. He specialized in the floor exercises -- tumbling and vaulting.

“He didn’t have that enormous upper-body strength that a lot of gymnasts have. But he was a very good tumbler, very good up in the air,” said Francis Allen, who coached Nebraska’s gymnastics team for 40 years.

Allen had heard about Unger when the boy was still at Southeast High School. The Knights took state his senior year, 1971.

But they almost didn’t. After the first day of competition, the Northeast Rockets had an almost untouchable lead -- 17.5 points -- over Southeast.

“They were pretty down and pretty shocked that we were that far ahead of them,” said Duane West, a sophomore for Northeast High School at the time.

“But then Jim rallied the troops and convinced everybody they could beat Northeast, and they ended up beating us. He’s got a pretty strong will.”

Allen recruited both. They remained rivals inside the gym but became longtime friends outside of it. In 1980, West opened Capital City Gymnastics, and the Ungers opened Jim Unger’s Gymnastics.

Jim Unger estimates he’s had nearly 10,000 students come through his school.

“I’m getting the sons and daughters of people I coached in the ’80s and ’90s.”

He and Shannon spent last week in Phoenix, looking for a bargain retirement home. But they had no immediate plans to retire and were getting ready for this year’s crop of kids.

* * *

They got back in time Friday for Jim to get in a round of golf.

“Any time it’s sunny outside and he has some free time, he’s on the golf course,” Jamie said. “Even when it’s not sunny.”

Then he ran errands. So it was after 10 when he finally left for the school.

He climbed on his bike for the quick trip down the hill on 56th Street, from Pine Lake Road to Old Cheney Road.

Charlotte Evans was headed north, too, one of several drivers who steered wide around the cyclist. She glanced in her mirror after she cleared him.

“I could see his bike bouncing like he had hit a rough spot, and his bicycle just veered off into the ditch,” said Evans, assistant University of Nebraska-Lincoln police chief.

She stopped. She backtracked. She thought maybe she had been seeing things, that he’d just disappeared down a driveway.

She yelled into the darkness, several times.

Unger remembers the traffic and riding on the edge of the road and hitting a pair of potholes and maybe hitting his front brake.

“And that’s all I remember, and then I was flying through the air.”

He tried to move. Nothing. Then he heard a voice.

“I said, ‘I’m down here. I need you to call 911. I think I broke my neck.’”

While they waited, he asked Evans to call his wife, too.

* * *

He didn’t lose consciousness. And he didn’t lose his humor, his daughter said.

“He was cracking jokes that night. He said, ‘Good thing for the senior men’s golf tournament; someone else will have a chance to win this year.’”

Wednesday, he was preparing to leave the hospital and begin long-term, in-patient rehabilitation.

It’s too soon to tell whether he’ll regain use of his legs. His family is preparing for the possibility he won’t.

But he’s fighting it. He’s already made a promise to the intensive care doctors and nurses.

“I told them, ‘I’m going to come walking back in here.’”

Reach Peter Salter at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

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Peter Salter is a reporter.

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