Jim Michler returns to the “Birkie”

Jim Michler lives by an adage from his grandfather – “It’s better to wear out than rust out.” He does not spend a lot of time sitting still, or in one place. He repeats often how blessed he feels to have homes around the world in Steamboat Springs, in Havana Cuba and in a tiny village on the Pastaza River in Ecuador near Peru.

His home in Ecuador came about when he met an Achuar Shaman on a trip to the Ecuadorian Amazon. The Achuar are an indigenous tribe of 18,500 people who continue to live in, and care take two million square acres of Amazon Forest. Jim was drawn to financially support the Shaman’s work to keep the Achuar land and culture intact and to retain the young people of the tribe by mentoring them in the traditional culture and growing eco-tourism as a way for them to support themselves. The Shaman had a traditional forest home built for Jim and his partner Sharon Silva, and they visit often to soak in nature and the culture and to give back as they can. In May, Jim plans to return with a group of volunteers to build a classroom in a nearby village, Wachirpas, for the Pachamama Alliance. The 26-year-old foundation’s mission is to integrate Indigenous wisdom with modern knowledge to shift engrained consumer thinking to one which better sustains all life.

When the snow starts to accumulate in the Rockies, Jim prefers to return Colorado to ski. He teaches Nordic skiing at Snow Mountain Ranch in Grand County. He prefers to teach young people, and he delights when through skiing they begin to experience the beauty and wonder of nature. When he’s not teaching, Jim can be found training for the infamous American Birkebeiner, the 50 Kilometer Nordic race which attracts over 10,000 skiers to Wisconsin each February.

Jim first skied the “Birkie” in 1978. He had always planned to return, but his career as a software executive, marriage, family, and a busy life kept him away until 2008 when the competing in the event became an annual goal and pilgrimage for Jim. In 2018, he moved from Milwaukee, where he was used to training on a 1-kilometer track of man-made snow, to Steamboat Springs where training options seemed endless.

Training daily in his new winter home, Jim felt fitter than ever and was ready to step up his performance.  He was out for in one last training ski before he planned to fly to Wisconsin for the 2020 Birkie. He remembers a simple fall on fresh snow and then excruciating pain in his left shoulder.

Streamboat Orthopaedic & Spine Institute’s Dr. Alejandro Miranda was on call and managed to relieve Jim’s dislocated shoulder, but the preliminary Xray showed his left shoulders humerus bone had been shattered. Dr. Alexander Meininger was called in for a consult and determined a reverse shoulder replacement was necessary. Surgery was scheduled for the next day at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. However, complications in a separate case ended up delaying Dr. Meininger. Another SOSI doctor, Dr. Adam Wilson, was available to step in and perform the replacement. Both Drs Meininger and Wilson participated in Jim’s follow up care.

At Jim’s 3-month follow-up visit at the SOSI Grand County clinic, Dr. Wilson was concerned. Jim’s range of motion was not where it should be at that point and Dr. Wilson suspected nerve damage. Jim felt the rust begin to accumulate as he recalled his grandfather’s quote. Dr. Wilson suggested Jim visit the Mayo Clinic for further tests. Not willing to risk permanent damage, Jim made appointments and booked the trip. Three days of testing at Mayo showed healing was slowly progressing, and determined the safest option was further physical therapy. Jim returned to Steamboat and made PT his full-time occupation.

“Jim was diligent with his physical therapy exercises and knew he had to do his part to have a successful recovery,” said Dave Grinnell, physical therapist and board-certified clinical specialist in orthopedics at UCHealth SportsMed Clinic in Steamboat Springs. “It’s a three-pronged approach – you need a successful surgery, clinically appropriate physical therapy, and a patient like Jim who is willing to do the work. He’s made an incredible recovery.”

Soon Jim’s range of motion started to improve and is now at 95%. “One of the best things about our work, is seeing our former patients out enjoying life fully and able to contribute to the community in a meaningful way once again,” said Dr. Wilson.

2024 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Birkebeiner, and Jim plans to make that his final competition. “It’s easier now because my age group, the over 70 skiers, start directly after the elite skiers while the snow is still in good shape,” he says. “I am grateful to the entire SOSI team. The doctors and staff all worked together in a remarkable way to get me back to where I am today.”

And the home in Cuba? That is another story for another time, but Jim says it includes cycling.