Difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict. – William Ellery Channing
The journey for James Hinchcliffe since May 18, 2015, has been one that exemplifies the strength of the human spirit.
A day that started off as any other – practicing for the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but took a near tragic turn after a suspension part failed on his No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda, sending him into the Turn 3 SAFER Barrier and, moments after, into emergency surgery at IU Health Methodist Hospital.
However, each roadblock standing between the affable Canadian and a reunion with his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team was met with the overachieving and unbreakable will of the “Mayor of Hinchtown.”
The Oakville, Canada, native returned to the cockpit just more than four months after the crash in a test at Road America and resumed his full-time role once the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season kicked off in St. Petersburg.
The monumental comeback came full circle on May 22, 2016, when Hinchcliffe returned to the scene of the accident and catapulted to the top of qualifying – winning the Verizon P1 Award and pole position for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil with a sizzling four-lap pace of 230.946 mph.
The remarkable comeback story entranced millions of viewers throughout Hinchcliffe’s participation in Season 23 of “Dancing with the Stars” that concluded with his runner-up finish a week ago. Now, with the help of professional dance partner Sharna Burgess, Hinchcliffe said he has finally found a sense of closure for his brush with death.
“In the immediate aftermath of that accident, the chance of survival was very low,” Hinchcliffe said. “A lot of people wouldn't have made it through. (Dr. Tim Pohlman, the hospital surgeon) firmly believes that it was because of some sort of fight inside me that helped him do his job and ultimately get me through that.
“Sharna started asking me questions about that. I obviously have no memory of that. That's not something that you do consciously, it's a subconscious thing. So from somewhere in the time from when I lose my memory (when the crash occurred) to when I wake up (following surgery), that happened: that decision to fight happened.”
Hinchcliffe added that the 31-year-old Australian helped him complete the story throughout the ABC dance competition show, in the form of artistic and expressive performances. The 2015 crash served as inspiration for several of Hinchcliffe’s dances, none more meaningful to the 29-year-old racer than his final performance – a freestyle on the climactic night Nov. 22 that depicted Hinchcliffe being pulled toward death until his guardian angel (Burgess) guides him back to life. Hinchcliffe voiced over portions of the emotional dance that earned perfect 10 scores from all four judges.
“It's not something I had really thought about, what that moment would have looked like or what that moment really meant,” Hinchcliffe said. “I'm not sure if I was purposely not thinking about it because it is a scary thought or something that had never crossed my mind.
“She saw that was a very important moment. That's what she wanted to create. For me, there was kind of a gap in the story because I had not really thought about that, whether it was a subconscious or conscious decision. She so beautifully built that part of the story for me.
“Now I have a visual reference to what I think happened (in the moments when he was fighting for his life) and how that went down inside me. It was a very cool process to be a part of.”
Part of what made everything easier for the Verizon IndyCar Series veteran was being paired with someone who handles every aspect of her life the same way – with humor.
“The thing for me was just she and I operated in a way that we used humor to get through most situations,” Hinchcliffe said.
“I'd be lying if I said there weren't days that were stressful to the point where you wanted to walk out of the studio, have a go at each other kind of thing. Not even at each other, but just the situation. We always managed to use humor to get through it.”
For several months, Hinchcliffe was forced to confront the horrifying incident day after day, hoping for the opportunity to finally turn the page and begin a new chapter.
“For me, and we talked about it a lot last May, I just wanted to change the story. I wanted to change the narrative and give everybody a new story to talk about.
“When we had the opportunity, especially in the freestyle (dance) at the end there, to kind of like I said on the show, fill that gap in the story, almost give it a bit of closure, it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up.”
Hinchcliffe’s journey to return to the cockpit of an Indy car was also chronicled on “Arrow presents Courage in Sports” that aired Nov. 6 on CBS. Watch the entire segment here: