What keeps you going when everyone around you believes you’re doomed to fail? That’s the question Stephen Dale answers through his coaching and mentoring business, Smiling Tiger. When he fell more than 30 meters from a cliff face, the two men who administered CPR until rescuers arrived never gave up, despite his extensive injuries.
A year later, when Stephen left hospital, he was still unable to speak, read or write. Doctors told him he would never recover. But he refused to surrender, and instead continued his rehab at home, and through a grueling decade long struggle, he gradually rebuilt his own brain. Then, to top it all off, he used his ordeal to build a career.
Talking to Robbo and Alex on Vision’s Rise & Shine program, he explained that he’d been raised in a Christian family, surrounded by churched friends. But his upbringing didn’t prepare him well for the bullying he faced in high school. “Because I was small, and ultra-polite, and with a set of good ears, things just didn’t work out for me almost immediately.”
Listen to Stephen’s full interview below:
Stephen became a 24/7 liar – telling his parents everything was great, while desperately trying to fit in with the people who looked down on him. He left high school with serious alcohol and self-image problems. “That five years completely changed my entire life, and my entire mind-set, and my belief was all but destroyed.”
Stephen ran away from Brisbane, and did his best to get Christianity out of his life. A few years later, all his running from God had only left him down and nearly out. Reluctantly he made friends with a couple of Christian guys who invited him on a trip to Philip Island. They told him drinking, drugs and fighting were off limits. “We were going to have fun without those three things, which I didn’t think was possible.”
At the pub where they stopped for lunch, he knocked back as much as he could. Partly it was the alcohol that inspired him to climb a sheer cliff face, but he was also driven by the conviction he’d taken away from high school, that he wasn’t good enough.
When Stephen crashed to the rocks below, his two friends, who hardly even knew him, were almost certain he couldn’t be saved. Their doubts grew as they approached him, and saw massive injuries to every part of his body. The tide was coming in, and help was far away. If they’d left him for dead then, no one would have blamed them.
But despite the odds, they didn’t give up on him, keeping up CPR for more than 45 minutes until a rescue chopper arrived. During that time, Stephen suffered five heart attacks. “They were just told then, let me go. I’m only around, I’m only alive, my heart is only beating because they’re making it beat.”
When the Alfred Hospital called his parents, they told them to fly down that night if they wanted to say goodbye. But despite horrific injuries to his spine, legs, lungs, heart and liver, Stephen survived.
He spent the next year moving between four different hospitals. Difficult as that time was, he’s certain there’s no way he’d be alive if God hadn’t been involved. “It was a miraculous recovery,” he said, “but I believe the Lord knew me well enough that if he had healed me in one day, I would have been back in the pub that night.”
Besides the incredible physical trauma, Stephen’s serious brain injury had robbed him of his ability to read, speak and write. Medical professionals told him he would never make a full recovery. “Talk Mr Dale out of trying so hard,” his doctor told his nurse in front of him, “because he will only ever be disappointed.”
But Stephen wasn’t content to live on welfare, watching daytime TV for the rest of his life. If everyone expected him to fail, he thought, what was the harm in trying? So he spent the next decade slowly relearning all the skills he’d once taken for granted. His progress was painstaking, and he suffered many setbacks, but his natural determination drove him on.
At the five-year mark, his writing started to return. Seven years in, he could read again. By the time ten years had passed, he was walking safely despite his back injuries, and no one could tell he’d once been unable to talk.
Now in his early 30s, Stephen faced a new challenge. He had no qualifications and no job history. The only options he had open to him were menial, unfulfilling jobs. But he thought about the miracle of his survival, and all the ways God had helped in his recovery, and knew he wasn’t meant to be working in supermarkets.
“I figured that nobody would employ me except for me, so I’m going to give it a shot. And I can guarantee you that having a major brain injury, and then starting a small business, I don’t know which one’s harder.”
Rather than being preoccupied by what he lacked, Stephen thought about what he could offer. “And what I can do, and what I can talk about, is that I have worked through an extraordinary recovery after being written off by neurologists and surgeons.”
“I’ve got the story of being able to lead yourself and make good decisions, I’ve got the story of a great family, of working really hard over a long period of time. And as I started sharing my story, it took me very quickly into the corporate world, into the sales world, into the professional sports arena, into schools.”
Stephen soon found engagements lecturing at universities, speaking in hospitals, and even working with some of his heroes in Rugby League. “And right the way through, my love of God, and my closeness to God during my rehab was always in the back of my mind.”
A couple of years ago, Stephen was asked to speak to a Christian men’s group. As more opportunities arose in Church, he understood that God’s true plan for him was finally coming to fruition. “The Lord was very clear that one day, the time’s going to come when all of this has been nothing but an apprenticeship for you to speak to my people.”
You couldn’t get lower than Stephen after his fall. But the secret weapon that inspired his painful climb was the same thing that sustained the men who saved his life. Faith. Stephen’s survival was so unlikely that he knew God had a hand in it. He realised if he followed the path in front of him, however difficult, he could achieve the impossible.
So take a look at the goals and dreams you have for your life and business. Experts may tell you not to try so hard, not to risk failure. But if you’re walking God’s path, with Faith to keep you strong, anything is possible.
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