Love, determination push paralyzed wrestler to win again

Published: Mar. 1, 2012 at 7:33 PM CST|Updated: Mar. 7, 2012 at 9:03 AM CST
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Gene Bergeron
Gene Bergeron

THIBODAUX, LA (WAFB) - Ask any current or former high school wrestler, and they'll tell you wrestling is one of the few sports that teach an athlete to fight hardest when he is flat on his back. A Thibodaux wrestler is on the comeback trail after everyone, even his doctors, counted him out.

Gene Bergeron is a self proclaimed gym rat. "I just love working out. It's something I've been doing since I was a child," he said. "It was more about strength back then."

The 42-year-old's workouts took him from the weight room to the bright lights and the square circle.

"As far back as I can remember, as a child going to my grandpa's or my uncle's house, always had wrestling on Sunday morning."

Mid-South wrestling to be exact; and from the age of 4, Gene was hooked. "Paul Orndorff, Ted DiBiase, Junk Yard Dog, Freebirds, those guys were charismatic. It was something I just wanted to do."

Then at the age of 22, a friend introduced Gene to a wrestling promoter. That promoter introduced Gene to a few wrestlers, and Gene started training. "It was a dream, really. Ask a kid who goes to the shows and then one day, actually to meet them and be able to work with them. It was just awesome."

Gene finally got his chance in the ring in 1995. He didn't know about his first match until just minutes before he stepped into the ring. "They needed somebody to be The Black Ninja, and go in and interfere with a match," he explained.

He charged the ring in black tights and a black mask then kicked a wrestler in the head. He still smiles when he remembers that night. "It was awesome; to hear people booing me, throwing stuff at me. That's what you want when you're the bad guy."

Gene eventually wrestled under two names: The Black Ninja, and the name that folks around his hometown of Pierre Part know as Gino Van Damn – the name his high school gave him for the splits and kicks he used wrestling in the back yard.

Injuries are never far off in the wrestling business, and Gene had his share. "I got a few bruises," he said.

After barely a year, those bruises ended his career; on January 18, 1996.

"I thought the guy was going to Power Bomb me," Bergeron said. "He, just at the last minute, decided to Pile Drive me, so I wasn't set up right. When I hit the mat, it just snapped. My neck snapped."

As Gene lay flat on his back, he knew his life had changed. "At first the crowd thought it was part of the act," he said. As the severity of his injuries became clear, he said, a hush fell over the crowd. "I could move my head left to right, but nothing else worked."

To compound matters, the promoter had not hired an ambulance. It took about 90 minutes to get Gino Van Dam to the hospital.

He spent five months in Terrebonne General Hospital in Houma, Louisiana, paralyzed from the chest down. Doctors told him he would never even breathe on his own.

"The worst scenarios that you can possibly think of automatically come first into your head. And I just said I'm gonna beat it."

In the hospital, Gene said he found strength in himself and his nurse, Laura Hebert, to fight on. It started with out as a joke. "I called my nurse and said 'I want some Moo-Goo-Gai-Pan' just to mess with her."

A couple hours later, in walked Nurse Laura Hebert with a pan of Moo-Goo-Gai-Pan. Today, she explains, "If my patient wants something, I'm going to get it for him, if I can." Less than a year later, they were married.

"She sees me how I am, and still loves me," said Gene.

Laura said her dad had reservations about his daughter marrying a man who would never be able to take care of himself. "Dad would say, 'Do you realize you're going to have to take care of this man for the rest of his life,' and I would say, 'Yeah, Dad. Love can overcome a lot of things."

Overcoming obstacles is what Gene's entire life has been. He left the hospital in May of 1996, bound to a wheel chair; Gene still had one more opponent to pin.

He had already proved his doctors wrong. Gene never needed a tracheotomy tube or ventilator to breathe, but he was bound to a wheel chair. He had no feeling below his chest, no control of his hands, but his arms still worked.

Together, Gene and Laura continued his therapy at home, using big rubber bands tied to the foot of his bed to strengthen his weakened muscles. His goal is to hear the roar of the crowd when Gino Van Damn stepped back into the spotlight. "I know I can do it. I just got to figure out a way."

That way led Gene back to his roots, back to the gym.

Today, Gene grunts as he curls 30 pounds; a far cry from what he used to lift, and to work up to that has taken almost 10 years. "I knew all the exercises. I just had to figure out a way to do, a new way to do it."

That new way of doing things means someone to adjust his weights, hook the weights to his wrist straps, and even bring him a drink of water. That someone is his constant companion wife Laura.

But for the man who used to lift grown men over his head and toss them over the top rope of the wrestling ring, that's okay. It's got Gino Van Dam competing again.

He is the two-time USA Wheelchair Body Building Amateur Masters Champion, and the only quadriplegic to ever compete.

"You should hear them scream when he's up there on the stage." Laura said with a tear forming in the corner of her eye. He's hot. He's sexy. What else do you want me to say? I fall in love with him more every day; the fight and the drive in him. The way he gets up every morning with a smile on his face. He's ready to go."

Not too shabby for an athlete who was flat on his back and almost counted out.

Gene will try to make it three consecutive USA Wheelchair Championships this June in Metarie.

But, he said, even a third title pales in comparison to the feeling he got last January when Gino Van Damn reappeared at a Gulf Coast Wrestling show. One of his idols, Hacksaw Jim Dugan, was even there to welcome him back. His message to the crowd, "This is a great thing to do, but don't do it at home. You gotta know what you're doing, or you can end up like me. I knew what I was doing, but it still happened. I never gave up. Most people don't get to live their dream. I'm living two."

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