The Fall, and Rise, of Bret “Hitman” Hart: Part One
Bret Hart working alongside the March of Dimes
For Part Two of this interview, in which Bret discusses mending fences with Shawn Michaels and Vince McMahon, his triumphant return to the ring in 2010, his place in wrestling history, becoming a grandfather, and whether or not we’ll ever see another Bret Hart match, click here.
They call them “bumps” – the pro wrestling term for the falls, slams, and crashes combatants take during an all-out, tear-the-house-down brawl. Canuck wrestling legend Bret “Hitman” Hart knows the feeling — during his two decade career he’s had his face smashed against turnbuckles, his body driven through tables, and none other than Andre the Giant press him high above his Goliath frame, only to toss him like a rag doll from the ring to the concrete arena floor below.
But the worst bump Hart, 56, ever took, occurred far from the wrestling ring, in a riverside park in his hometown of Calgary – the same city where his father, Stu Hart, operated his fabled Stampede Wrestling promotion.
In June 2002, at the age of 45, the former multi-time wrestling champion inadvertently rode his bike into a hidden, basketball-sized hole in the grass, tumbling to the ground and triggering a stroke that left half of his body paralyzed.
MIKE CRISOLAGO: You quipped that the anniversary of your stroke is your “11-year celebration,” but in a way it really is a celebration.
BRET HART: Now it is – like the way you remember 9/11 or something you survived, I guess. I don’t keep track of dates in a bad way. I try not to remember the day people died so much as I remember the day they were born. That kind of stuff.
With my stroke, you’re right, it’s a black day that I put a pink circle around. I rarely let the day go past without remembering or reflecting. A lot of times I’ll ride my bike along the same path – the same ride I took the day I crashed – and the same hole is there, funny enough.
MC: Take me back through that bike ride.
BH: I was pedaling up a real small hill and I hit the hole and I could have tipped over right there, but I kept pedaling. I was trying to fight out of the hole without getting off the bike. If I had just stopped and maybe got off I’d be fine. I was standing up on the pedals, so I couldn’t really do that. And then my back tire hit the hole, and I did the same thing – keep pedaling, fighting out of it. Then I got my bike where it was kind of wobbling. I got about three feet from the hole and then my bike just fell over sideways.
I do remember when I hit it and fell I was mad at the hole. I said ‘Stupid hole.’ And I was all slurring and drooling. I believe I had the stroke as soon as I hit the ground. It’s funny how much I floundered in those few minutes trying to figure out what was wrong with me. I thought I had a pinched nerve. I had no pain other than a little bit of a scrape on my head. I couldn’t figure it out.
MC: Tell me about being in the hospital and coming to grips with the left side of your body being paralyzed.
BH: It was so bad in the beginning. I realized I’d have to put all my faith in these people to put me back together – and I remember saying “I’ll do whatever they tell me to do, everyday, to the best of my ability,” and I did. I remember my doctor saying to me, “What do you want the most?” I said, “Just get me out of the wheelchair.” I remember when I finally got out of the wheelchair my walk was still pretty jilted and stilted and kind of off-balance and stuff like that, and I actually remember praying that if I get out of the wheelchair I won’t complain about anything else.
There was an [older lady] named Miriam that was in there with me, and she gave me such a good pep talk the very first day. She gave me a lot of support in those first few days, as did the nurses and the physio and the doctors and everyone else. Six months later I’m starting to walk and get better and I remember her still sitting in her wheel chair. She didn’t get anything back. And you learn how lucky you are. You take all those old memories with you and you try to move forward. That’s why I do what I can for the March of Dimes.
MC: As you’re talking you’re lifting your hand off the table – a simple movement that was the product of months and months of rehab.
MC: You suffered a severe concussion in a match against Bill Goldberg in December, 1999, that ultimately forced you to retire? Is there a connection between that and the stroke a few years later?
BH: It’s hard to say. It’s really hard to say. They told me that they didn’t think there was but my honest opinion – I think there’s a connection.
MC: As a professional wrestler you always kept in peak physical condition. What kind of workout routine do you keep since the stroke, and what would you advise others in your position to try?
BH: Free weights are really hard on your joints – your elbows, your knees, your wrists. I think it’s a smart idea to start taking care of your joints as you get older. I set a goal for myself when I was in the hospital. I thought some day I’m going to try my hardest, when I recover from this, to lift 300 pounds again. Just to be able to say I did it. And I did. I remember it took me a long time. I tried my hardest for I don’t know how many years. And I came back and I trained and trained and I did – I think I got 301 or 302 pounds or something on the bench press. And I remember struggling and fighting – it wasn’t very Olympic form or anything, but I did it and it was a huge thing for me. And since then, the day I did it, I don’t do heavy weights anymore.
I do a lot of machines, and you can get the same results with these chest press machines and stuff like that. I can do a lot of the same things I used to with certain exercises. But my left arm will always be weaker than my right one.
MC: There’s also a great irony, considering how your career ended, that you were always known as one of the safest wrestlers to work with.