LYNNWOOD — When he was 22 years old, Jeff Anderson woke up in the hospital, unable to move from the neck down or recall the last three years of his life.
That was more than 30 years ago after he crashed in a street race near Aurora Village in Seattle.
Today, he still has limited mobility but has mostly recovered and serves as an inspiration to others through his work as a fitness trainer at the Lynnwood Recreation Center.
“If I think back to myself at the hospital and look at things now, it’s a dream come true,” said Anderson, now 55.
Brian Hendricks, recreation supervisor for the city of Lynnwood, has worked with Anderson for two years.
“He is a motivation for all of us,” Hendricks said. “He’s in here every day. He really cares about people and wants to be that example.”
On Sept. 23, 1979, Anderson totaled his car during a race with a friend. He doesn’t remember what he hit, only that he was driving a Datsun 260Z and no other cars were involved.
“I was a 22-year-old lead foot and I was too hot for my britches,” he said.
For a month following the accident, Anderson was in a coma at Northwest Hospital in Seattle. He was transferred to Harborview Medical Center. When he woke up, he was told that he broke two vertebrae in his neck. Doctors told him he’d never walk again.
Anderson had a wheelchair but, at first, he wasn’t strong enough to use it. He could only move backwards, so the hospital staff put up signs to let everyone know he would be wheeling himself backward to and from therapy. He said this helped him to regain some independence.
He stood up for the first time for a family photo on April 27, 1980. It was his 23rd birthday.
“I said a prayer, and I stood right up,” Anderson said.
He was home for the day and the staff changed his program when he got back to the hospital.
First, he could only stand, so hospital staff helped him to move around. Soon, he could walk without their assistance while gripping parallel bars used in physical therapy, then later with a walker.
By the time Anderson was discharged on June 14, 1980 — less than a year after the accident — he could walk on his own. To this day, he still can’t remember most of what happened between 1976 to 1979.
“As I kept working — I’m not trying to brag, but — my physical therapist said I was the hardest worker she’d ever met,” Anderson recalled.
He said that his motivation was getting back to college and getting a job.
Anderson, who played football in high school, said he’d always dreamed of a career in fitness.
“Personal training is getting to know people, inspiring them, helping them out and teaching them by example, too,” he said.
Before the accident, Anderson had just completed his associate’s degree at Edmonds Community College, but because of his memory loss he had to go back.
When he did, he met Karen, now his wife of 29 years. Anderson and his wife live in south Everett with their 15-year-old son, Tyler.
“He’s a great husband, a great father and a great man,” she said. “I am very blessed.”
He tried a career in finance and worked other jobs. He cast about and went with his original love of fitness. In 1992, the recreation center hired him and paid for his personal training certification and classes to keep him certified.
He worked at the center, training individuals and teaching classes until the city faced budget cuts earlier this year.
When the city talked of eliminating Anderson’s job, residents and coworkers told city officials how disappointed they would be. The Lynnwood Parks and Recreation Department also received letters on Anderson’s behalf.
“A lot of people fought for his job,” his wife said. “It really showed what an asset he is to Lynnwood and the community.”
The city kept Anderson on as an exercise room attendant, showing newcomers how to use equipment and watching over the weight room,
“He is such a valuable person to us,” Hendricks said.
Anderson still faces problems from the accident: He has trouble moving his legs, arms, fingers and hands, but said that his six-day-a-week workouts have helped him to regain stamina, strength and flexibility.
“It just made me appreciate things a lot more,” Anderson said. “When things are bad I think, ‘It could be worse.’ At least I’m not in a wheelchair going backwards.”