BLOOMINGTON — Former Bloomington resident Shane Niemeyer was born in Loveland, Colo., in 1975 but was reborn in the Ada County Jail in Boise, Idaho, on Oct. 23, 2003.
That's when the cord that he was using to hang himself snapped and he collapsed to the floor.
He hadn't even succeeded at taking his own life.
But what happened next was his rebirth. He came to his senses and concluded that the only thing he had left to do was to live his life.
When he read an article in "Outside" magazine about the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, the 28-year-old homeless heroin addict found his calling, beginning in jail his transformation from a junkie to an Ironman.
Since then, the man who at one time was best known in Bloomington-Normal for being the 18-year-old who was drunk and dodging cars on Veterans Parkway in 1994, (he was hit, treated at OSF St. Joseph Medical Center and charged with improperly walking on a highway) now is training for his fifth Kona Ironman. That's swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running 26.2 miles.
He's written a book, "The Hurt Artist: My Journey from Suicidal Junkie to Ironman," which was released a few weeks ago and has been selling well in Bloomington-Normal.
No wonder. The 261-page book (which sells for $25.99) is gritty but ultimately uplifting.
It details his descent from a hyperactive boy with an overbearing father into a teen who resented his family's move from California to Bloomington and embraced the numbness that came from alcohol and drug abuse.
The story follows his further descent into a heroin junkie who was arrested numerous times, generally for drug- and alcohol-related offenses, before he woke up on the floor of the Ada County Jail. There he began his ascent that has led to Ironman triumphs; a successful career as a fitness coach; reconciliation with his family (including with his father, the late Ralph Niemeyer); successful marriage to triathlete and speech-language pathologist Mandy McLane; and author.
Niemeyer, 38, now living in Boulder, Colo., agreed to talk with the newspaper that once reported his exploits. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
Q. You had several close calls. How is it that you didn't die?
A. I don't know. I'm not a religious person. I do believe in God. Maybe I was left behind to connect with people struggling with depression, obsessive/compulsive disorder, addictions and domestic violence. A lot of my friends, especially the group from Bloomington, have died. My friends and I knew no boundaries. Now I need to use this platform of a book and whatever small notoriety I have to encourage a deeper understanding of addictions and depression.
Q. You were pretty hard on Bloomington-Normal in your book. Do you think you would have had troubled teen years no matter where you lived?
A. The saying is "Wherever you go, there you are." It was certainly not the geographic location, although that could have amplified it. I was a young, insecure, adolescent male. I needed a sense of belonging. I missed my friends and the ocean when we moved halfway across the country (from California). I was trying to find my place and went looking in the wrong places. Now when I return (to the Midwest), I see an immense amount of greenery, rivers and lakes that I didn't see years ago.
Q. What was that moment like just before you jumped (attempted suicide)?
A. I didn't realize until that moment that people could be so sad. I remembered that a girl from our high school (Central Catholic High School) had committed suicide and I remembered making callous, ignorant comments, saying that she was weak and couldn't hack it. Now here I was 28 and getting ready to jump. Despair is the absence of hope. Being without hope is most horrifying. Then, having jumped, I was wracked with pain.
Q. What changed after your failed suicide? How did you let go of berating yourself?
A. When I regained my faculties, I realized that I couldn't even kill myself. Having come through that experience, a suicidal crisis, I had looked the abyss in the face. I didn't die. I had nothing left to do. All I had was the wreckage of my past. I was shattered as a person, I was crippled up in a ball and had nothing to lose anymore. In a way, that was a release for me. I needed new thoughts to replace my old, destructive thoughts so I began to read. And when I read the magazine article, I began training. The training was a substitution for my compulsivity. It provided me with a set of objectives. It required discipline and focus and devotion. Slowly, my destructive thoughts were replaced with hope.
Q. How did you stay committed to your new goal of becoming an Ironman?
A. One motivation was fear of failure. I wanted to create a new life. The physical activity allowed me to channel my fear, anger, shame and guilt.... The training helped me to rebuild myself. The triathlon gave me the scaffolding to put my life back together. And I'm sure the endorphins and neurotransmitters were helping me to feel good.
Q. What are your goals?
A. I would like to go under 9 hours with an Ironman. (His best time is 9 hours 14 minutes). I'd like to go 4:06 in a half Ironman. (His best is 4:11). It would be nice to be in the top 5 at Kona. After that, I think we (he and Mandy) would like to start mountaineering. I'd like to speak more and get involved with people. Training is one-dimensional. I need to be of service to others.
Q. What do you hope people take away from the book?
A. I hope the book will help to change the way someone thinks about his or her life.... Everyone gets stuck. No one can identify with the extremes of my story but I think many people can identify with parts of my story. Hopefully some inmates, people who are depressed, addicted, overweight and people struggling and lost in life will realize that there's no such thing as coming too far. We human beings are ultimately strong.
Q. What do you want to tell those people?
A. Far too often, we focus on our maladies and all the things going wrong in our lives. What I would tell people is always begin with "What if you could recreate your life? What would you be doing?" Have a concept of your ideal self. Chase the sun and put the darkness behind you.
Q. What is your message to Bloomington-Normal?
A. Bloomington-Normal is a great, family-oriented community. I'm sorry that I didn't show Bloomington-Normal my best.
Q. What does your mother (Lynne Niemeyer) think of your turnaround?
A. Mom lives 35 to 40 minutes away in Loveland, Colo., the place of my birth. As far as the turnaround, I think she is pretty thrilled. She is my biggest fan.