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Paul Gait at Rehab

Paralyzed After Warehouse Fall, Paul Gait Says It's Business as Usual

January 20, 2023
Matt DaSilva
Gait Lacrosse

IF PAUL GAIT SOUNDS SURLY, it’s because he just got off another frustrating business call. It has nothing to do with the fact that he can’t move his legs.

Gait, 55, made that much clear during an hour-long interview Thursday. He was on the road, headed to the USA Lacrosse Convention, just as he’s done every year since he started designing and manufacturing lacrosse equipment in 1995.

That he’s only two months removed from a cataclysmic fall that knocked him unconscious and rendered him paralyzed below the waist has no bearing on this trip to Baltimore.

Gait wants to talk shop at LaxCon, a haven for lacrosse techies and industry leaders. But the former Syracuse great and twin brother of current Orange coach Gary Gait realizes most people want to know what happened to him Nov. 3.

So here goes.

Gait was finishing construction on a shipping facility he built for Gait Lacrosse in Altamont, N.Y., the last building to be developed on the 60-acre property he purchased in 2017. His dream, he told the Altamont Enterprise at the time, was to be able to walk his dogs to work and toil into the night. He had already built the house, a workshop and an office with a showroom for his company. He did much of the work himself.

While unrolling insulation in the attic, Gait said, he noticed warping in the engineered wood ceiling beneath his feet. He stood up on one beam and grabbed another overhead with his left hand. He reached his right leg out to test the ceiling panel, which fell off as soon as he put his foot on it.

Gait lost his grip, slipped and hit his head on the truss in front of him, knocking him unconscious. He careened 20 feet, crashed into a sawhorse and fell to the cement.

Gait suffered a head laceration, six broken ribs and three fractured vertebrae in his upper back. He had spinal fusion surgery that night at Albany Medical Center. That’s when doctors told him the damage to his spinal cord was irreparable.

“At this point, they’re calling it permanent,” Gait said. “Paraplegic.”

Gait spoke about the prospects of never walking again and living the rest of his life in a wheelchair with surprising matter-of-factness.

“You adjust like anything,” he said. “It’s like losing a game. Once you lose, you’ve got to figure out how to win again. I’ve got to figure out how to do all the stuff I used to do, but from a wheelchair instead of standing.”

After Gait Lacrosse issued statements on Nov. 4 and Nov. 18 regarding Gait’s accident and rehabilitation, he received hundreds of calls, emails and text messages.

“Almost all the same, almost all a little unrealistic,” he said.

If anyone could come all the way back from these injuries, they insisted, it would be one of the greatest lacrosse players of all time.

A three-time first-team All-American and NCAA champion at Syracuse from 1988-90, Gait played on four Canadian national teams, made the National Lacrosse League All-Pro team 11 times and was the inaugural Major League Lacrosse championship game MVP in 2001. He won NLL MVP honors the next year, then retired at age 35 due to early-onset osteoarthritis in his back, ankles and elbows.

While Gait often operated in the shadow of his brother, they were inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame together in 2005. Now they’re business partners.

“No one knows I’ll never walk again. The truth is the truth. I think it’s better if people know,” Gait said. “Most of my friends say if anyone is going to walk again, it’s going to be me. I wish, but I don’t think so.”

Gait has started to regain feeling in his abdomen and back, though the outer muscles are still paralyzed. His doctors expect all upper-body functions to return to normal with continued rehab and healing. They’re less optimistic about his lower body.

“You’ve got to have a sign, some type of hope if you’re going to be one in a million and come out of this. You’ve got to be able to move a toe or something,” he said. “Maybe I’ll be one of those guys that has a breakthrough and gets lucky. If not, my life will still be pretty darn enjoyable.”

Gait considers himself fortunate to have the financial means and access to equipment to transition somewhat seamlessly to life in a wheelchair. He shared a room at Albany Medical Center with four stroke victims, three of whom were diabetics who had their feet amputated but could not afford prosthetics. They were discharged anyway.

Gait said he wants to start a foundation to provide newly disabled people with equipment while their insurance claims are processed — which can take two to three months, he said.

Still built like an ox, Gait works out five days a week on a hand-powered stationary bike. It takes longer to get ready in the morning. What once took 20 minutes now takes two hours. And he’s started to notice just how few public places are designed for someone in a wheelchair.

Gait had planned to start building a new houseboat in June. Now, he said, it will just have to be accessible. He drives a Tesla, which he can operate by hand.

“The only thing I’m going to lose is riding my motorcycle,” he said. “You could get a three-wheeler, but I’m not sure that’s something I’d be thrilled with. I’ll certainly try one.”

Gait pictured with (from left) USA Lacrosse senior director of sports administration Caitlin Kelley, USA Lacrosse senior account manager Kirsten Brown and Gait Lacrosse vice president of product and marketing Jenny Levy at a reception for USA Lacrosse partners Thursday night in Baltimore.

Otherwise, Gait said, it really is business as usual. In addition to redesigning the Gait D, which the NCAA men’s lacrosse rules committee recently deemed illegal, his company is developing new faceoff and goalie heads. He hasn’t thought much about wheelchair lacrosse. He’s interested in learning more about Wheelchair Lacrosse USA — an opportunity he’ll get this weekend at LaxCon — but has no plans to suit up anytime soon.

“I can tell you my playing days are over,” he said, saying it was a mistake to come out of retirement for five games with the NLL’s Colorado Mammoth in 2005. “I haven’t picked up a stick and played in almost 20 years. I was fine with it then and I’m still fine with it.”

Asked what he would want to say to the lacrosse community, Gait replied, “That my life is still going to be as enjoyable as it would have been if I could walk. I’m going to live it to the fullest and have as much fun and success as I would have had. What more could you want at 55? Good friends, lots of fun, success in business, a good family — there’s not much more than that.”