Never Give Up

Ernest Sickenberger

New Year’s is a time for resolutions. Although people come up with multitudes of ways that they’d like to improve themselves, the most often cited resolution is to exercise and lose weight.

By February 1, most of those resolutions have been broken. However, if Ernest Sickenberger gets his way, he will motivate people to not give up on their goals and to get on a path to fitness. It’s his dream to start a physical training company that inspires its clients to live well.

The roots of Sickenberger’s goal were planted on March 1, 1998, when he suffered a horrifying snowboarding accident that landed him in a coma for 45 days. Councilman Joe Buscaino, a classmate of Sickenberger’s from San Pedro High, recalls his feelings when he learned about the accident. “A number of our friends prayed for him. We thought he was going to die, but he shocked us all with his amazing recovery. He’s just a man of strength and determination.”

After coming out of the 45-day coma, Sickenberger was in the hospital for an additional two and a half months. “They thought I would be there for a year,” he says. Sickenberger attributes his good physical condition with keeping him from dying. “I always worked out and I was in good shape. That’s one of the only things that saved my life,” he claims.

The fact that Sickenberger is even capable of telling his own story is nothing short of a miracle. Doctors didn’t expect him to be able to walk and talk again. However, it was not an easy path. He explains, “I couldn’t do anything. I had to learn how to breathe, how to talk, how to walk, how to dress myself, how to live my life again. “

Although it took an amazing degree of strength to get moving again, Sickenberger acknowledges the depth of despair that he felt after his accident. “It was very frustrating. I was like a child in diapers again. In the first year I thought about killing myself. And then I had a realization, this is my new life. There are things you can’t do, but so what? Who cares? I’m alive.”

Sickenberger acknowledges his mistake that so severely injured his brain. He explains, “All of this would have been avoided if I had just worn a helmet. I thought snow is soft.” He raps a table for emphasis and adds, “But the trees are harder. I hit a tree and boom, forty-five days in a coma.”

Councilman Buscaino recently invited Sickenberger to share his story at City Hall. Buscaino was introducing a motion for stricter skateboarder safety laws, inspired by the deaths of two teens in San Pedro while skateboarding. “He came to testify on the seriousness of preventing accidents involving head trauma. Never have the chambers been as quiet as when he was providing his powerful testimony,” recalls Buscaino.

Sickenberger has also accompanied Buscaino to their San Pedro High alma mater to speak on the issue of helmet safety. Buscaino says, “I was with him when he shared his story with the teens. Ernie is an inspiration to our town and I’m just grateful to call him my friend.”

After graduating from San Pedro High in 1992, Sickenberger went to Harbor and El Camino College before transferring to the USC. He was only six weeks from graduating at USC when he had his accident. “I was in a coma when the rest of my classmates got their diplomas,” says Sickenberger.

Eight years after his accident, Sickenberger decided he wanted to go back to college and get his diploma. He states, “I figured, let’s go back to school, and not just any school, let’s go back to USC. My dad always told me, ‘Shoot for the highest. If you miss, so what, at least you tried.’”

Making the decision to go back to school was not an easy one because even eight years after his accident, Sickenberger had a daily routine of physical therapy, speech therapy, and adaptive exercise programs. “All that was like a full time job, we had to do repetition, repetition, repetition,” explains Sickenberger.

Because his schedule allowed him to only take one class a semester, it took Sickenberger three years to graduate from USC’s School of Business, but graduate he did.

Less than one percent of the people rehabilitate from the type of accident that Sickenberger suffered. He says, “I’m the one percent. It’s remarkable. I have a lot of knowledge that I can provide to people that are in a similar situation and are looking for lessons. That’s huge.”

Sickenberger’s goal is to start a personal training company. His own exercise routine includes spinning at the gym for cardio fitness and weightlifting for strength. He especially wants to specialize in helping people recover from the same types of disabilities that he’s had to deal with. “I want to help people to get back their functions because I could basically do nothing after my accident and I had to learn how to use my body again,” says Sickenberger.

So, as you might gather, Sickenberger won’t need a New Year’s resolution to get motivated. He explains his resolution/philosophy, “You only get one shot at life and I got two. This is my second chance, so I’m gonna have a big game.” spt

Jack Baric can be reached at

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