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The long road back

He was IndyCar’s fastest-rising star, a natural talent who seemed destined for greatness before a horrifying crash nearly killed him, and left his body shattered. A year later, Canadian Robert Wickens is embarking on one of the most extraordinary comebacks in sports. But first he must learn to walk again

By Grant Robertson and David Goldman Photography by David Goldman Published July 10, 2019

Last August, Canadian racecar driver Robert Wickens opened his eyes after a marathon sleep. He was on vacation in England, spending time with his fiancée, Karli Woods. They were to be married in a little more than a year. Life was good.

After years of sacrifice, Wickens had broken through into the highest echelons of his sport, emerging in 2018 as one of the world’s best drivers and executing the most dominant rookie season IndyCar has seen in decades. He thought about getting up and going for a run. It had been a few days since Wickens had hit the gym.

A voice told him he couldn’t.

Why not? “I was running, like, two days ago,” Wickens said.

“No, Robert, you weren’t.”

Lying in bed, Wickens was confused. What was going on? He was groggy and disoriented.

“Robert, your legs don’t work – you’re paralyzed.”

At that moment, everything he thought was real – the trip to London, his training at the gym – was just a drug-induced hallucination, a cruel vivid dream spun by the powerful painkillers coursing through his body.

In reality, the 30-year-old from Guelph, Ont., had just spent 10 days in a medically induced coma.

His spine was broken, his neck was broken, both hands and legs were broken, along with an arm, an elbow and four ribs. His lungs were severely bruised and he was badly concussed.

His family – his mom, dad, brother, and fiancée – stood ashen-faced around his hospital bed, fighting back tears, and trying to explain the situation to a man who refused to accept it.

“One of the first things I remember is them basically telling me that I was paralyzed – and I just couldn’t understand,” Wickens said.

“I was just like, ‘No – you’re wrong. You’re wrong!'

“And then people would cry and leave the room, because I guess I was being stubborn.”

Less than two weeks earlier, Wickens’s car flew off the track and slammed into the catch fence at Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa., a few hours north of Philadelphia, destroying the vehicle and bringing his burgeoning career to a sudden halt. In a matter of seconds, Wickens went from rookie sensation to a man trying to piece his life back together.

But against incredible odds and warnings from doctors that his injuries might be insurmountable, Wickens is now trying to engineer one of the most remarkable comeback stories Canadian sport has seen – even if he knows it defies all logic.

This weekend, he will watch from the sidelines of the Honda Indy Toronto, a race he dreamed of winning as a young boy. Without the full use of his legs, he will lead the warm-up lap before the event using a specially equipped car controlled entirely with his hands, guiding drivers at half-speed around the track as they warm up their tires. Then, sitting in his wheelchair, he will don a headset in the paddock and provide strategy to his teammates during the race.

It is a ceremonial return, but it’s not enough. Wickens has bigger plans. Less than a year after the sport nearly killed him and in the midst of a brutal recovery process that sometimes leaves him defeated and in tears at the end of the day, he is vowing to get back into a racecar.

First he must teach himself to walk again, one step at a time, then eventually he wants to race for real.

He doesn’t expect people to understand the compulsion to return. He is well aware that the risks of the sport involve worst-case scenarios such as this. But the terms of his comeback are non-negotiable.

“I need to get back to racing. I need to get back to IndyCar,” he said.

‘The one thing that I was unsure about’

It began with a few dollars, some asphalt and the stench of motor oil.

Robert Tyler Wickens was six or seven when his parents paid his admission at a roadside Go-Kart track in Grand Bend, Ont., to let him try it out. The kid had been transfixed by racecars for as long as he could remember. When he was three, Wickens spotted a Formula One race on television and became entranced. He ignored other toys, playing only with miniature cars, and begged his parents to let him see the movie Days of Thunder. Eventually, his grandfather made Robert a copy with the racy parts edited out, and he watched it nonstop.

Those first few turns around the Go-Kart track only confirmed it. He wanted to be a racecar driver. Tim and Lise Wickens acquiesced, allowing Robert to enrol in junior racing for a year. After that, they figured he’d probably move on. He never did.

Robert Wickens, age 8
An eight-year-old Wickens, in his first year of racing, participates in an event at the Waterloo Regional Kart Club in Ontario in 1997. @robertwickens

By the time Wickens was a teenager, he was winning championships and pegged as one of Canada’s brightest rising stars, alongside his good friend James Hinchcliffe. But racing isn’t like other pastimes; it takes huge resources to pursue a career in a sport in which drivers eventually have to bring in sponsorships or pay their own way.

The Wickens family wasn’t rich. His mother drove a school bus. Tim, a heavy-machinery mechanic, and older brother Trevor helped keep his kart tuned up. When Robert got older, the family sold their house in Guelph and moved in with relatives to keep him going.

Hailed as a racing prodigy, he was often talked about as one of Canada’s next great Formula One drivers. But talent alone wasn’t enough, Wickens was unable to muster either the sponsorship dollars or the vast personal bankroll needed to catch on with a team at that level.

Robert Wickens, age 12
A 12-year-old Wickens takes his place on the podium at a Sunoco Ron Fellows Karting Championship race event in Ontario in 2001. @robertwickens

He spent the bulk of his mid-20s driving various European circuits, beating out drivers who later moved up to F1 and IndyCar. Meanwhile, Hinchcliffe, of Oakville, Ont., had become an established driver on the IndyCar circuit in North America and, in early 2018, lobbied to bring Wickens over to his squad, Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

With two Canadian drivers behind the wheel, they were dubbed Team Canada, and Wickens did not disappoint.

Before his first race in St. Petersburg, Fla., last spring, he surprised the field as a rookie by taking the pole position in qualifying. Even Wickens himself seemed taken aback, joking that – after years of focusing on F1 – he’d have to brush up on IndyCar’s rules on how to start the race, because he was going to be at the front.

The race itself was just as surprising. Had it not been for a collision with two laps to go, Wickens would have won in his very first outing. He seemed destined for IndyCar greatness. Over the first 13 events of the 2018 season, Wickens rattled off seven top-five finishes, including four trips to the podium – one of them a dramatic third place in Toronto, the only Canadian stop on the schedule.

Robert Wickens’s race finishes in the 2018 IndyCar season
Note: Total drivers per race are depicted except for the Indianapolis 500 on May 27, 2018, which featured a total of 33. The Globe and Mail, Source: IndyCar.com

“His rookie season was really one for the history books,” Hinchcliffe said. “He obviously came in with a wealth of racing experience, having driven at an incredibly high level for over half a decade, but his ability to adapt and apply that experience to what was a very unfamiliar environment was astonishing.”

IndyCar is unique. Drivers must display more versatility than any other racing series, which makes it extremely challenging. Formula One courses tend to be tight and twisty, mixing heavy braking with all-out acceleration. NASCAR drivers race around oval speedways for all but a few events, but the design of the stock cars means the speeds are not as extreme.

IndyCar – the top level of open-wheel racing in North America – is a hybrid of the two. It flips back and forth between both kinds of tracks, using cars designed for maximum speed. One week, drivers might be cornering left and right on a claustrophobic street course, the next race they could find themselves screaming counter-clockwise around a banked oval track, where physics matter most and speeds regularly top 230 miles an hour.

“To be a champion in that series, you have to be a great all-round driver," Wickens said. "It’s not just the same type of circuit over and over and over again.”

The wide-open nature of the oval speedways has led drivers from disciplines such as Formula One to steer clear of IndyCar. At those speeds, the margin of error while hurtling around a banked oval, such as Pocono, is just too slim for some to risk it.

“There’s no denying it, a superspeedway is not particularly designed for an IndyCar,” Wickens said.

Having competed in Europe, Wickens knew he could handle the street courses. The ovals? He was never one to back down from a challenge.

“I’d never driven an oval before,” he said.

“I wasn’t saying, like, ‘no, absolutely not, I’m going to hate these.’ I just didn’t know anything about them, so I wasn’t super excited about it.”

“It was the one thing that I was unsure about.”

‘Tell Karli I love her’

It was his fifth oval race. Wickens remembers very little of the crash. For him, most of the details of the accident in the ABC Supply 500 on Sunday, Aug. 19, have been pieced together after the fact.

He saw a photo of the crash in hospital and noticed his right hand protruding from the car as it spun violently through the air before slamming into the catch fence.

“That must be how my arm broke,” he thought.

Aside from a relatively minor collision in Texas, Wickens had looked extremely comfortable on the speedways. He took second in Arizona, fifth in Iowa, and ninth at the Indy 500. But Pocono would be different.

As wrecks go, there has never been another crash like it. Never in the history of IndyCar has the black-box data recorder that sits beneath the driver’s legs been destroyed – along with whatever measurements it was taking at the point of impact. The last bit of data collected by the recorder before it went dark suggested Wickens was travelling just over 184 miles an hour hurtling through the air when his car came apart.

“To be honest I don’t really remember anything of the whole day,” Wickens said. “I have seen photos of James and I goofing off at the autograph session before the race, and I’ve heard a lot of fans saying, ‘I got to meet you right before the crash.’ I don’t really have any recollection of any of it.”

Pocono is one of IndyCar’s superspeedways – though from above it’s more of a triangle with rounded corners. It’s fast and, at times, demonstrably deadly. In 2015, IndyCar driver Justin Wilson was killed at Pocono when debris from a car accident ricocheted off the track and struck his helmet.

Wickens was entering Turn 2, seven laps in, jockeying for position with Ryan Hunter-Reay. He went to pass on the inside, but Hunter-Reay, on his right, had more straightaway speed. Their wheels touched for a split second. Suddenly Wickens was airborne.

Aug. 19, 2018

Wickens remembers very little of the crash at Pocono International Raceway on Aug. 19, 2018. Much of what he knows has been pieced together after the fact, through photos and video, which helped him understand how some of his injuries likely occurred. IMS Productions

His low-slung car, which was roughly 16 feet long and weighed more than 1,600 pounds, spun like a propeller into the catch fence, a mixture of wires and poles designed to keep cars from careening into the grandstand or, in this particular turn, smacking into a grove of trees. The fence acted as a net, but its metal construction also had the effect of a cheese grater, shredding the vehicle to pieces.

The on-board camera affixed to Hunter-Reay’s side mirror shows Wickens’s car vaulting over top, coming so close that Hunter-Reay later said he had to “shrug down” to avoid being hit.

Wickens’s car tore a swath in the fence before hitting a pole and spinning back onto the track, disintegrating before the TV cameras as it came to a rest on the inside of the speedway. When it finally slid to a stop, all that was left of the car was the cockpit – the small capsule that houses the driver. Almost everything else had been shorn off or crushed.

At home in Indianapolis, Karli was watching the race on television with Hinchcliffe’s fiancée, Becky. The two couples were planning a fall trip to Germany, and the women were looking online for coats. Karli glanced up from her laptop just in time to see Wickens spinning out of control. She knows the sport is dangerous, but in that moment she had no idea what she was seeing.

“Initially I was like, aw no, he’s out of the race. Because I know how mad he gets when he doesn’t do well,” Karli said.

“I just thought, nothing hit his head, he’s fine. I’d seen other really crazy crashes and people walked away.”

“But then they kept showing it over and over again.”

She remembered something Wickens once told her about televised racing: If they stop showing live pictures of the driver – it’s probably bad.

She kept waiting for the NBCSN broadcast to show Wickens being pulled from his car, or loaded onto a stretcher – anything. But there was nothing, just the replay, over and over in slow motion.

“They never showed Rob again. And he always told me that wasn’t good. … So I was just like, okay, now it’s getting bad.”

Her phone rang. It was Trevor, Robert’s brother.

“What do you know?” Karli recalls him asking, thinking she was trackside at Pocono. From where she sat, she didn’t know much. The Wickens family knew a lot about racing though. “His parents, they all thought that he died instantly,” Karli said.

Robert Wickens crashes into the catch-fence at Pocono International Raceway
Wickens was conscious and lucid when emergency crews arrived on the scene, but it was soon apparent that his injuries were severe. Todd Dziadosz

When emergency crews arrived at the car, they expected the worst, but they found Wickens conscious.

He remembers none of it, but according to the briefing he later received from IndyCar officials, the conversation was strangely calm.

“Are you okay?” they asked.

“Yeah, I think so.”

What’s your name?

“Robert Wickens.”

What track are you at?

“Pocono International Raceway.”

Do you know what turn you are in?

“Turn 2.”

Wickens seemed lucid.

But the question about the racetrack was a dead giveaway that something was wrong.

Never in his life had Wickens referred to the track by its full name: Pocono International Raceway.

“I would never call it that,” he said.

Wickens was in shock. He was favouring his arm. The emergency crews could see it was broken. Then they looked down beneath the steering wheel. Inside the battered car, both of his legs were mangled.

Wickens spoke again: “Actually, my back’s really starting to hurt, and I can’t feel my legs.”

“And that’s when things escalated really quickly.”

He was taken to an onsite hospital. He started blacking out. The paramedics revived him with oxygen, and a few seconds later he passed out again. Then, more oxygen.

Karli’s phone rang again. Amid the chaos, a woman inside the medical facility – the wife of another driver who happened to be a nurse – had found her number. She yelled across the room at Wickens: I have your fiancée on the phone, is there anything you want to say?

“Tell Karli I love her,” Wickens said.

That was when Karli knew it was bad. He never talked that way. Those sounded like last words.

As emergency crews prepared to airlift Wickens to a nearby hospital, a member of the Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team staff went over and sat next to Wickens.

Karli couldn’t be there. His family couldn’t be there. Somebody had to be at his side.

“So that he didn’t die alone,” Karli said.

‘Those are your legs’

Wickens was flown by helicopter to the emergency room at nearby Lehigh Valley Hospital. He was delirious. Before they put him under for the trip, he pleaded with the doctors: Am I paralyzed? Am I paralyzed? But no one would answer. Aboard the helicopter, out cold, he nearly died choking on his own blood until paramedics were able to get a breathing tube down his throat.

Karli boarded a plane to Pennsylvania. Wickens’s family drove south from Guelph. None of them knew what they would find when they arrived in Pennsylvania.

“This is for sure the hardest part,” Hinchcliffe said. “The waiting bit is terrible.”

In 2015, Hinchcliffe nearly died in a crash during practice in Indianapolis, severing a major artery when a rod on the bottom of the car broke through and punctured his seat. Paramedics held the artery closed long enough to get him to the hospital, which was the only thing that kept him from bleeding out.

“My parents had to get on a three-hour flight with no internet, with the last thing they heard being, ‘We hope he pulls through.'" Hinchcliffe said.

“In a similar way, Rob’s family drove through the night to get to the hospital and at times, through the country, would lose signal for a few minutes at a time. Those moments can be agonizing.”

When Karli arrived from the airport, the prognosis was bleak. Wickens couldn’t move his legs. There were serious spinal and neck injuries, broken legs, a broken arm and head injuries. He would need multiple surgeries. But doctors weren’t sure if, given all his injuries, he would survive the first spinal procedure, which had to be performed with him laying face down. The family was handed papers to sign acknowledging he might die on the operating table.

“I knew he was alive, but they didn’t know if there was brain damage, they didn’t know if he would be the same, they didn’t know how paralyzed he was,” Karli said.

For the first few nights she slept on a couch in his hospital room. Eventually family and friends insisted she get some rest at a nearby hotel.

“I can’t sleep. I’m just staring at the ceiling. That’s the moment where you are like, I am completely alone right now,” she recalled. “I just wanted him to wake up … I just wanted him to say, it’s going to be okay.”

When Wickens did eventually wake up, he could barely talk. The heavy painkillers he was on – fentanyl, an opioid 100 times more powerful than morphine – kept him foggy and confused. When he was awake, he hallucinated. Items hung on the wall would vanish before his eyes. He heard a baby crying. He imagined he was somewhere else – in London. Once, Karli came to visit him and he didn’t recognize her.

“I didn’t know what was real or what was fake,” Wickens said.

Even after being told of his injuries, he failed to fully grasp the situation.

When his brother came to see him, the two were talking at his bed and Wickens felt a big lump beneath the sheets, which he thought was a pillow. That’s odd, he thought.

“Trevor what is this?” Wickens said through the haze of the fentanyl, pawing at the blankets.

“What do you mean? Rob – those are your legs.”

For all the things he can’t remember, it’s one memory he’ll never forget. That was the moment it all sunk in.

“I couldn’t feel anything,” he said.

A new reality

If Wickens was to have any hope at recovery, the first thing he figured he needed to do was get off the painkillers immediately. He needed his brain back.

“How am I going to walk again if I don’t even know I have freaking legs in the first place? I need to at least know that they’re there,” he said. “I need to be in a good, conscious mental state to get through this.”

He quit the fentanyl cold turkey and switched to less-powerful painkillers but it plunged him deep into withdrawal. He had the shakes, cold sweats and debilitating nausea. One minute he had five fans trained on his bed trying to keep him cool, the next he’d be buried in blankets, teeth chattering.

But in that moment, he made a choice. He was determined to focus solely on rehabilitation.

In the early days soon after the crash, IndyCar issued a statement saying that Wickens had suffered “orthopaedic injuries.” It was a vague term that served to underplay the trauma he was in. Little else was known publicly about how bad the situation was.

Talk soon spread on social media that Wickens was, in fact, doing well and would be back at the track in no time. It wasn’t true, but the rumours proliferated and gained believability. As pundits and news sites picked up on the chatter, the myth took root: Robert Wickens was fine.

It spun false hope and added to the emotional toll on his family, who were confronting reality inside the hospital. Less than three weeks after the crash, the Wickens family issued an unusual public statement in response, looking to set the record straight. It was unapologetically blunt.

“As unverified sources immediately following Robert’s accident inaccurately and without permission portrayed his condition as less than severe, in an effort to remain transparent and open, we are providing a list of Robert’s injuries to truly showcase the severity,” the statement said.

A graphic depicting the location of Wickens’s injuries
The Globe and Mail, Source: SPMIndyCar.com

In professional sports, where injury details are guarded like state secrets, it was an unprecedented disclosure. The bullet-point list read like a medical-school text book: thoracic-spinal fracture, spinal-cord injury, neck fracture, tibia and fibula fractures, fractures in both hands, fractured right forearm, fractured elbow, four fractured ribs and a pulmonary contusion. He also sustained a concussion.

Doctors told Wickens about the body’s ability to sometimes rewire itself after a spinal-cord injury, to reroute and reestablish nerves, to repair itself. He clung to this. With enough will, he thought he could get there. But he didn’t know what he was in for.

“We had no idea what rehab actually entailed,” Wickens said. “We thought that when I went to rehab it would just be short term, I would learn how to walk and I would go home.”

He admits he was naïve. Wickens had to learn the basics of paralysis. Things he once took for granted were now monumental chores – moving from a chair to the bed, avoiding bedsores, and even the most rudimentary daily bodily functions. Having lost the feeling in his bowels, he needed a catheter to urinate.

“It was pretty eye-opening at the beginning, just how much of this rehab was about your bladder and your bowels,” he said. “Everyone knew everything, everyone was asking you questions that you would have never been asked before the injury – family members, everyone – because they were so involved at the early stages of my recovery they were in the loop on all those things. It got to a point where I was just like, stop. I need privacy. I need my own space again.”

Robert and Karli were given some key advice from Sam Schmidt, co-owner of Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and his wife Sheila. Schmidt, a former driver, went through a years-long recovery following a crash in 2000 that left him a quadriplegic. They told the young couple to do their best to keep such things separate from their relationship. It would be better in the long run.

“Because we’re young and we want romance to stay,” Karli said. It meant she had to fight her natural inclination to help him with everything.

Schmidt has been around paralysis almost his entire life. “My father was paralyzed racing when I was 11 years old, so unfortunately, our family had been through it before,” he said.

Left to right: Robert Wickens, Sam Schmidt, Ric Peterson and Penni Peterson
Left to right: Wickens is photographed with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team owners Sam Schmidt, Ric Peterson and Penni Peterson on April 7, 2018. Chris Jones/IMS Photo Archive

His advice to Wickens was to tap the mental and physical energy that made him successful on the track and redirect them into his recovery.

“If he put as much thought, energy and perseverance into his rehabilitation as he did into driving, there was no reason he couldn’t walk again without assistance and, God willing, race again,” Schmidt said.

Focusing on a goal helps. So Wickens wrote his down on a piece of paper: I want to walk again.

Karli asked him if he wanted to postpone the wedding, slated for the fall. He refused. It was something else to strive for – a new finish line.

Yet, psychologists cautioned him to be realistic. Some patients slip into depression if they set their expectations too high. “They always kept saying, we just have to prepare you for the worst, in case it doesn’t get better,” Wickens said.

“I’m like – but it will.”

He was told not to expect any sensation or movement in his lower body for the first six months after the injury. But five weeks in, something extraordinary happened.

Lying in his hospital bed, immobilized by a neck brace, back brace and casts on his broken legs, Wickens felt a twitch. Something moved. It was his leg – a muscle in his inner left thigh. Did he imagine that?

He peered under the covers, He thought about moving the muscle. It flickered again.

“Come look at this,” he shouted frantically across the room at Karli.

“And then I did it again – and it worked.”

They both broke down.

“Like it was the happiest day of our lives,” Wickens said.

Learning to walk

Wickens grips the handles on his walker and pushes himself, slowly, out of his wheelchair. He takes a second to steady himself and, ever so gingerly, slides one foot forward, then another.

Robert Wickens in rehab
Part of Wickens’s rehab activities include gait training. He is seen here using a walker with the assistance of Chris Agresta, a physical therapist assistant, at a facility in Denver, Colo. in April, 2019. davidgoldmanphoto.com/The Globe and Mail

They are baby steps. More of a shuffle, really. His legs shimmy and shake, but his eyes don’t waver. Staring forward, he looks like a man concentrating on every nerve synapse, however faint. Sometimes he has a therapist helping him, bracing his ankles, holding his knees. Other times, he does it on his own.

It is nine months after the crash, and Wickens has moved to a specialized rehabilitation facility in Denver. Bit by bit he has regained some of the feeling he lost. He can feel his abs, his glutes, he can move his legs, ever so tentatively. He is one of the lucky ones. His nerves are slowly trying to rewire themselves around the injured part of his spine.

On the six-month anniversary of the crash, he surprised Karli by forcing himself into a standing position from his wheelchair and taking a few steps toward her. They embraced. He shuffled a bit. He joked that they were practising the first dance at their wedding.

Feb. 20, 2019

Six months after his accident, Wickens surprised fiancée Karli Woods by forcing himself into a standing position from his wheelchair. @robertwickens/Instagram

In March, pining for the racetrack, he travelled to the first race of the IndyCar season, in St. Petersburg. Two therapists helped him climb the stairs to the plane, one holding his legs, the other bracing his hips. By mid-May, when he travelled to the Indianapolis 500, he made a point of climbing the stairs himself, shaking like a leaf as he urged each limb forward in slow motion.

March 7, 2019

May 23, 2019

Improvements can be seen in Wickens’s strength as he boards two different planes, first assisted and then, two months later, on his own. @robertwickens/Instagram

They are massive strides, but for Wickens it’s not enough. He wants to walk cleanly again, so that no one knows he was injured.

“People looking at my MRIs early on basically told me that they saw almost no hope for me to regain anything, and I’ve gotten as far as I have,” he says. “So I like to think that my mindset and my work ethic and everything is playing a large part.”

While in Denver, he and Karli live in a hotel near the rehabilitation centre. The days begin around 6 a.m. as he transfers himself from the bed to his wheelchair and then to a shower chair.

Robert Wickens in rehab
Robert Wickens in rehab
Robert Wickens in rehab
At rehab, Wickens works out on a functional electrical stimulation bike, a therapy designed to stimulate activity in weak or paralyzed muscles, with clinical exercise specialist Hayley Mapes, left, and exercise specialist Victoria Tapia in April, 2019. davidgoldmanphoto.com/The Globe and Mail

“It’s the same morning ritual that I think any person has. But everything just takes a little while longer,” he said.

From bed to being out the door, he’s cut it down to an hour and a half. Six days a week, he’s at the centre doing four to six hours of therapy a day. There are treadmills, spin bikes set to minimal resistance, pool workouts, muscle stimulation with electrodes, boxing and weights to put back 35 pounds he lost in the hospital. He is working harder than he ever has.

Robert Wickens in rehab
Robert Wickens in rehab
Robert Wickens in rehab
While in rehab, Wickens spent up to six hours a day on therapy, hoping to build strength as feeling returned slowly in his legs. davidgoldmanphoto.com/The Globe and Mail

There have been major setbacks – unexpected surgery to correct an injured left ankle and an infection from a small scratch that spread throughout his entire body and could have turned fatal. But his progress has been better than expected. Still, he finds himself glancing over at other patients with the eye of a seasoned competitor. If someone is walking better, he wonders what they are doing that he’s not.

"The hardest thing about this is that you can’t compare to another injury, because every spinal-cord injury is entirely different,” he said.

The scrutiny that comes with being a professional athlete has not necessarily been kind. People who Karli has never met reach out on social media with comments and criticism.

Robert Wickens in rehab
Wickens works out with clinical exercise specialist Kaci Hudson, left, while fiancée Karli Woods watches in April, 2019. davidgoldmanphoto.com/The Globe and Mail

A few months in, a woman contacted Karli on Instagram and told her she was strong for persevering. The woman added she was surprised Karli was sticking around.

The message gutted her. Of course she was sticking around. What was presented as a compliment felt backhanded and condescending.

“I don’t think I’m strong. I don’t. We break down,” she said. “It’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done. I feel like we’re just trying to go day-by-day to get through everything.”

‘Risk management’

Sam Schmidt has already told Wickens that his No. 6 car will be there for him if he is able to drive it.

Wickens knows it may sound reckless to want back into racing, having narrowly cheated death already. But he can’t help it. The lure of competition helps keep him going, particularly on bad days, when the rehab gets difficult.

Hinchcliffe understands what Wickens is going through. When he nearly died, he couldn’t wait to drive again.

Drivers have one of two psychological responses to a horrific crash, he said. Either they decide it’s not worth it and never get back behind the wheel again, or they see their return to the car as a healing force.

“If you’re the first driver, you don’t ever have to battle the psychological part, because you’ll probably never drive again,” Hinchcliffe said. “If you’re the second driver, you are counting the seconds until you get the chance to drive again because without it you feel incomplete. Getting back behind the wheel makes you whole again.”

Drivers know they are risking their lives. Some call it a compulsion, a form of addiction.

“I think we have a way of blocking out whatever part of the brain controls self-preservation, and we are willing to put ourselves into dangerous situations,” Hinchcliffe said.

“Racing isn’t a want, it’s a need. It’s all we know, and we don’t want to live without it.”

Still, Wickens’s crash has given a few drivers pause. Wickens has heard rumblings that some who were looking to make the jump to IndyCar are now reconsidering that decision.

Robert Wickens at Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Wickens attended Indianapolis 500 events at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, 2019. @robertwickens/@indycar/Instagram

In June, 28-year-old British Driver Max Chilton, a former F1 racer who made the switch in 2016, said he would no longer race ovals and stick exclusively to road courses, effectively pulling himself out of four of the remaining nine races on the calendar at the time, including Pocono.

Chilton didn’t go into detail about the decision, but said “risk management is a central consideration.”

Wickens tries not to dwell on what went wrong. Despite his injuries, he maintains the car absorbed the crash exactly how it was designed to. After ripping an 80-foot hole in Pocono’s catch-fence, the car crumbled around him, leaving the driver’s cockpit – though not the driver – mostly intact.

“This tested new boundaries of what an IndyCar is capable of. Pieces of my car failed in the correct manner,” he said.

It took clean-up crews nearly two hours to clear the debris from the track. When the race finally got going again, the remaining drivers sped past the gaping hole in the damaged fence every time they rounded the second turn. But the race went on.

Asked later how he dealt with such a chilling reminder of the crash, the eventual winner, American driver Alexander Rossi, said he had no choice.

“You’ve got to compartmentalize,” Rossi said. "Deal with that emotion after the race.”

Fear of failure

Not everything has been about racing. One afternoon this spring, Wickens mustered all his strength, gripped the edge of his walker and pushed himself up into a standing position.

As he stood bracing himself, a tailor measured him for the wedding tuxedo he’ll wear this fall.

Less than a year ago, just standing there would not have taken the enormous amount of strength it does now.

Robert Wickens and Karli Woods
Wickens and Woods in April, 2019. davidgoldmanphoto.com/The Globe and Mail

“It’s a new perspective on everything,” he said. “You just have to press reset, and what I could do before is in the past. Now it’s just trying to rebuild and regrow.”

Karli tells a story of a time, early on, when Wickens was still suffering from delusions brought on by the painkillers. Sitting at his bedside, she had taken his hand and held it gently. Her hair was still wet from a shower and looked darker than usual. When Wickens opened his eyes, he stared blankly into her face. He had no idea who she was.

“You know, you shouldn’t be holding my hand,’ Karli recalls him saying. “’My fiancée is upstairs and she’s going to be really upset that you’re holding my hand.”

Wickens laughs now at how out of it he was.

For Karli, it was a small comfort. “He knew he had a fiancée. He’s loyal. He just didn’t know it was me.”

With every small improvement Wickens makes he inches closer to his goal. He is starting to gain more feeling in his body. Last month, he sneezed for the first time since the accident.

Even if he never races again, he is determined to walk down the aisle, stand for his vows and dance with the woman who’s helped take care of him all these months.

Wickens biggest fear now is failure. He’s not giving up.

“I don’t want to fail for myself,” Wickens said. “Most importantly, I don’t want to fail for Karli.”

Robert Wickens and Karli Woods
Wickens and Woods plan to marry this fall. His goal is to dance with her at their wedding. davidgoldmanphoto.com/The Globe and Mail

Writing by GRANT ROBERTSON; Photography by DAVIDGOLDMANPHOTO.COM; Design and development by DANIELLE WEBB; Editing by SHAWNA RICHER and PHIL KING; Art direction by MATT FRENCH; Photo editing by CLARE VANDER MEERSCH; Video editing by PATRICK DELL; Graphics by TRISH MCALASTER