I have been a big fan of Nate Higgins since I first met him at a local speaking engagement. We both grew up in the Tri-Cities area of Washington state and had an instant connection. Nate’s the kind of guy who pushes every limit. He does not allow adversity to stop him from living life to the fullest. In 2004, he faced a broken back that resulted in paralysis from the chest down after he fell off a roof at work. Rather than dwell on the challenges he faced, Nate chose to focus on what he could control. Following his injury, he graduated from Gonzaga University and earned two masters degrees, including an MBA from USC. He also went on to compete in the Para Pan American Games in 2011, complete open water swims of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge without a wetsuit, and to set American records in the 100, 200, and 400 IMs for short course. Now he serves on the board of directors of Swim with Mike, a scholarship fund for athletes with disabilities.
I am honored to call this incredible local citizen my friend, and this week it is my pleasure to share Nate’s story in his own words. You will quickly learn about his forward-facing outlook and focus, his gratitude toward the people who have made a positive impact in his life, and his commitment to pay it forward. Nate hopes to make Team USA for the the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
Where does your story begin?
I was born just outside of Chicago, but grew up in what is known as the Tri-Cities in southeastern Washington state. I was always active growing up. I played a lot of different sports. My senior year of high school I was the captain of the high school cross country and wrestling teams. I wasn’t particularly good at either sport, but my teammates liked me. I’ve always been pretty ambitious. I guess I define “risk” differently than others. To me, real “risk” is the risk of getting to the end of your life and having regrets over the things you didn’t do.
Shortly after high school, I was painting for a company called College Pro Painting. I wasn’t given adequate fall protection, and on July 7th of 2004 I fell off of a roof I was painting on and landed on a set of concrete steps about 10 feet below me. The fall, despite not being that far, resulted in a broken wrist, broken ribs, a fractured skull with a brain injury, and a broken back that resulted in paralysis from the chest down.
What are some of the defining moments in your life that have led you to where you are?
While many people might point to the workplace injury I sustained as a defining moment, I would say the first defining moment I had was being born into a supportive family. Outside of perhaps one’s physical and psychological health, there is not any greater advantage than being born into a supportive family.
When I was attending Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA, I went through a period of time where I was extremely depressed. It got severe enough that I chose to take a semester off and focus on my mental health. It was during this time that I remembered the promise I had made to myself that I would represent team USA. I chose to pursue swimming. Learning how to swim after my accident was a life-changing moment for me. When I first started to learn to swim, I could not swim across the pool using freestyle, backstroke, or butterfly to save my life. It took months of practice before I could do a 25 meter swim of butterfly or backstroke. In just over a year, I went from that starting level to being able to qualify for the Paralympic trials. This accomplishment is a strong testament to the greatest coach I have ever had in any sport, Jennifer Tonkyn. She took someone with very little skill or talent, and trained him to compete on the same level with some of the best adaptive swimmers in the world. I can’t say enough about her coaching and mentorship. Her coaching took me to the Para Pan American Games in 2011, open water swims of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge without a wetsuit, and American records in the 100, 200, and 400 IMs for short course meters.
After I graduated from Gonzaga in 2009, I immediately starting working for CH2M Hill in their Labor Relations department. Getting a job after college was beyond huge for me. It gave me purpose and structure. Bill Engel, the hiring manager, took a risk in hiring me. He could have hired any number of incredibly qualified applicants, but instead he took a chance on a newly minted college graduate with zero experience in Labor Relations. To this day, I think the world of Bill for the chance he gave me and the impact that opportunity had on my life.
John Rudolf bringing me on to work for his hedge funds in Bellevue, WA was another defining moment for me. This was a man I idolized – not only for his success, but his sense of humor and larger-than-life personality. I couldn’t believe he wanted me to work for his business. It was overwhelming, and it opened up a whole new world to me. My relationship with John has had a dramatic impact on my life and the way in which I view the world.
In June of 2010, I did the Alcatraz Sharkfest swim in San Francisco in order to raise money for athletes with disabilities. I did the swim without a wetsuit. That swim resulted in my introduction to John Rudolf and in my receiving a scholarship from Swim With Mike, which is a scholarship fund for athletes with disabilities. Swim With Mike would go on to pay for both of my masters degrees, including my MBA from the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. Today, I’m a member of the board of directors for Swim With Mike. Now, I view that weekend in San Francisco as one of, if not the most, defining weekends of my life.
All of this being said, had I not survived the accident, none of this would have happened. For at least the first 6 months post-accident, it was a daily struggle to simply survive. To even breathe in many cases was difficult. Sitting up was a harder workout than any swim or weightlifting session I’ve done. That “goal-line stand” so-to-speak is what made everything else possible.
What or who motivates or pushes you forward?
There are a lot of people who push me forward and motivate me. The people who I want to succeed for the most are my parents. They represent the single biggest advantage I have had in life. Anyone who thinks that your family isn’t important is only fooling themselves. People are so quick to call themselves a “family.” That term is wildly overused in society today. My parents sacrificed greatly after my accident to ensure that I would not only survive, but that I would have the opportunity to thrive. One of my dreams is to have the opportunity to provide for them as they get older the way they have for me.
I have had a variety of mentors throughout the years who have stepped up for me and given me opportunities. The first one who comes to mind is John Cadwell. John was the founder of Cadwell Laboratories, located in Kennewick, WA. John understood the need for me to get out of the house after my accident and contribute to society. He gave me my first job post-accident, and it was a complete game changer for me. Having that job gave me purpose, socialization, and the opportunity to add value for others.
Another mentor who motivates me greatly is John Naber. John won four Olympic gold medals in Montreal. John was the one who advocated on my behalf for a Swim With Mike scholarship. John has always been extraordinarily encouraging to me and has opened his rolodex on many occasions to lend a helping hand. One of John’s sayings is, “No Deposit, No Return.” John’s spirit, his generosity, and his example motivate me every single day.
John Rudolf is someone who also pushes me forward. John reached out to me shortly after my Alacatraz swim in 2010. John not only donated to the swim, but also took me under his wing as a mentee. However, John was more than just a mentor. John was a champion. He repeatedly reached out to help me reach my goals and expand my vision and horizon. Shortly after being laid off from CH2M Hill in 2012, John brought me on as an analyst at his hedge fund in Bellevue, WA. He did this despite my not having had any prior finance experience. Even before John brought me on to work for him, he would have me up to his cabin on Hayden Lake to simply fellowship with him and his family. He literally made me part of his family, and it changed my life forever. John has continually advocated on my behalf, and I really can’t thank him enough. He lives by the motto, “Live life large and get involved.” The world would be a much better place if we all endeavored to do the same.
There are other mentors who have had a tremendous impact on my life. Among them are Richard Oswald, who first sparked my interest in real estate investing. Zamir Siddiqi, a wealth manager based in southern California, is a mentor who has always had my back on a variety of levels, and never stopped believing in me, no matter how many times I fail. Bruce Juell, the former CEO of Six Flags, is another mentor I have had who has been extraordinarily encouraging to me over the years.
At the end of the day, though, my biggest motivating factor is maximizing my potential – attempting to become the very best version of myself. Living a life of no regret is my biggest goal. Whether I succeed or fail, I want to know that I gave it everything I have.
“We cannot guarantee success, but we can deserve it.” – John Adams.
John Wooden said, “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”
What is the main mindset shift you’ve had to alter or take on as you’ve gone through life?
“But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” – I Timothy 6: 6-7
“For I have learned to be content in all circumstances.” – Philippians 4:11
“Most people are as happy as they make up their minds to be.” – Abraham Lincoln
The concept of contentment is one that challenges me. As human beings it is easy to look over into someone else’s lane and to want what they have, compare ourselves to them, or tell ourselves, “I’ll be happy when I get that house, job, promotion, etc.” However, none of those things ultimately brings about contentment. The biggest mindset shift – and one I have to make on a daily basis – is to not look at someone else’s life, their lane, or their circumstances.
When I speak to groups, the theme of my talks is, “Focus on what you can control: your attitude, preparation, and execution.” It’s a simple concept, but one that proves difficult in practice (as most great principles are).
True happiness comes from having the ability to be content, grateful, and filled with hope regardless of the circumstances and challenges we are faced with. Life is all about embracing change and the challenges that come with those changes. The biggest mindset shift I have had to make is embracing the difficult challenges that life brings.
What is your advice for someone in the throes of hardship or significant change?
Don’t dwell. Just do. So often when something catastrophic occurs, we are so quick to extrapolate in our minds all of these other things that could occur. We take what is already a difficult situation and make it exponentially more difficult. The most difficult part of swimming the Golden Gate Bridge without a wetsuit wasn’t the temperature of the water, the current, or the chop. The most difficult part of the swim was all the pressure I put on myself leading up to the swim, and worrying about all sorts of different factors over which I had zero control.
When in the throes of hardship or significant change, take it hour by hour. Don’t worry about what might happen in 6 months. Focus on what you can control right now. When I was rehabbing from the spinal cord injury and brain injury, I wasted a lot of time and energy worrying about all sorts of things over which I had no control: people who weren’t there who I felt should have been, how I was going to handle college, how was I going to make friends, and the list goes on and on. Those are legitimate concerns. However, there was nothing I could do in that moment about them. Live in the moment. Be present in the moment. Focus on the task at hand. Don’t judge your circumstances, simply deal with them. Remember: you will ultimately be the arbiter of your success or failure, not your circumstances.
Is there a quote or verse that has encouraged you?
“God helps those who help themselves” – Proverbs 32:1 – I’m kidding! That’s not an actual verse in the Bible (Proverbs only has 31 chapters), but it goes back to focusing on what you can control. Don’t blame God for your circumstances. Trust Him through them.
“Let me exhort you. Examine yourselves. Let each of you discover where your true chance at greatness lies… Seize this chance. Rejoice in it. And let no power or persuasion deter you in your task.” – Dinner speech from the movie Chariots of Fire
Make the most of the opportunities you’ve been given. Ruthlessly attack areas of your life that are holding you back from achieving greatness. Don’t let mindless activities take away from the vision and plan God has for your life.