DENVER — North Dakota's Hunter Pinke is about a thousand miles away from home, preparing for another exhausting day of rehab and recovery at the world renowned Craig Hospital.

The 22-year-old suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury following a skiing accident during the holidays in Colorado. But just weeks later, the standout University of North Dakota athlete from small town Wishek, N.D., has everyone on his cheer team.

It takes just a few moments inside the physical therapy room, and one can see exactly what powers and drives Hunter Pinke.

"Holy cow, I thought I was strong, but this is a different type of strong," Pinke said as he pushed through the movements of his physical therapy.

The young man, who just weeks ago lay in a neuro-trauma unit in Denver, is learning how to live again.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live

"I compare it to an infant," Pinke said. "There is so much progression, and it is new for me, too. I am learning everything new again, and so progression happens really fast."

Tara Grann, Pinke's primary occupational therapist, spots Hunter Pinke while he lifts weights. Pinke said it "felt good" to be back in the weight room as part of his physical therapy following a serious ski accident. WDAY
Tara Grann, Pinke's primary occupational therapist, spots Hunter Pinke while he lifts weights. Pinke said it "felt good" to be back in the weight room as part of his physical therapy following a serious ski accident. WDAY

Pinke's progress has amazed physical and occupational therapists in Denver, and he remembers day one.

"Day one ... day one through three, I could not even sit up," he said. "I had to lay flat on my back. The only time I could sit up was to eat. "

Paralyzed from the chest down, his hands and arms function perfectly. His legs do not.

"Hunter is incredibly determined, and he has made so much progress," said Craig Hospital Physical Therapist Madie Johnson. "But he is so incredibly supportive of the other patients here and helping them out, too."

Craig Hospital is a facility that specializes in spinal cord and brain injuries, the place chosen for Pinke because of the damage done by that fateful skiing accident.

"I remember everything," Pinke said. "It was one of those freak accidents where we were both in each other's blind spots. We came out and collided with each other, and I lost my balance and went into a tree."

Pinke did not know the other individual involved.

UND football player Hunter Pinke is at Craig Hospital in Denver, which specializes in spinal cord injuries. WDAY
UND football player Hunter Pinke is at Craig Hospital in Denver, which specializes in spinal cord injuries. WDAY

His parents remember the phone call.

"My heart just dropped, and I just had a feeling right away," said his mom, Katie Pinke, who initially thought it was just a broken bone or something.

"I mean, what else?" she said. "Paralysis was not something that entered my mind."

The first 48 hours would change Hunter, his family and a giant community that seemed to galvanize around him.

"Initially, after the accident, he said, 'North Dakota is praying for me. All of North Dakota is praying for me,'" Katie Pinke said.

Hunter Pinke compares his progress to that of an infant because he has to learn everything all over again. He says progress is fast. WDAY
Hunter Pinke compares his progress to that of an infant because he has to learn everything all over again. He says progress is fast. WDAY

After a traumatic first few days, Hunter Pinke was out of the woods and off to Craig, where his perspective changed.

"There is a thought that comes into your head, and you think, this is bad," he said. "I have the worst of it. And you come here to Craig, and you look down, and you have full function of your hands. I am talking to you. ... I have my speech, and I have no brain injury, and I can breathe on my own. And you look around and you become grateful pretty quickly.

"That was the first miracle," he added, "was you go high speed, head-first into a tree, and I did not even have a concussion."

A young man known for his determination and courage, Pinke found support from those fighting for a new normal.

"Everyone has been where I was; they spoke from experience," he said. "Everybody here at Craig has been so encouraging. 'You will get there, you will get there,' they say, 'It will come.'"

Hunter's first day back in the weight room since the accident was an adjustment.

Hunter Pinke may have lost use of his legs following a ski accident in Colorado, but he is busy training and strengthening the top half of his body for his determined fight to recovery. WDAY
Hunter Pinke may have lost use of his legs following a ski accident in Colorado, but he is busy training and strengthening the top half of his body for his determined fight to recovery. WDAY

"I was breathing, I was breathing," he said. "It feels good.

And when Hunter tackled the stairs for the first time, it was something that had others holding their breath.

Perseverance? You bet. Tough moments? Of course. But his attitude is nothing short of incredible.

"You are around these people who are so enthusiastic about your recovery, and so there is no time to be down and have a pity party for yourself, because everyone around you and the environment around you is about getting better, getting better. ... It is kind of fun," he said.

This young man may have lost use of his legs, but his family says he has his voice, his mind, his heart. What more does he need to make a world of difference?