Dave Liniger: 'Just never, ever quit – and you can do anything'

By Jamie M. Blanchard | April 17, 2013, 12 p.m. (ET)
Dave Liniger
Dave Liniger, who co-founded RE/MAX and now serves as the company's chairman, almost lost his life in 2012. He chronicles his journey to recovery in a new book My Next Step: An Extraordinary Journey of Healing and Hope, scheduled for release on April 23. Proceeds from the book will benefit U.S. Paralympics. 

Long-time Paralympic supporter Dave Liniger spent much of 2012 recovering from a life-threatening infection that surfaced in late January. After multiple surgeries, weeks in intensive care and months in the hospital, he overcame fears and doubts of his darkest days to return to the headquarters of RE/MAX, the company he co-founded along with his wife Gail.

His new book My Next Step: An Extraordinary Journey of Healing and Hope, which will be published April 23, is a timeless story of challenge and resolve, as well as the friendships along the way. In telling his story, he provides hope and inspiration for anyone experiencing life’s difficult moments.

Liniger, who will donate his portion of proceeds from My Next Step to three non-profit organizations including U.S. Paralympics, talked to USParalympics.org ahead of the United States Olympic Committee Paralympic Leadership Conference presented by Deloitte, where he will deliver a keynote address.

 My Next Step book

Your book, My Next Step: An Extraordinary Journey of Healing and Hope, will hit bookstores next week. Why was it important for you to write the book?

The idea for this book came into my head during some of the darkest times in the ICU. On the one hand, I was terrified, but on the other I realized just how fortunate I was to have such incredible support from my friends and family all around me. I thought a book like this, a book centered on the idea that if you never give up you can make it through anything, would be helpful to others who might not have the advantages I have. It's a way of reaching out to people in difficult situations.

I've benefited from the insights and advice of others my whole life. I've surrounded myself with positive influences, from the books I've read and tapes I've listened to, to the people I've chosen to spend my time with. These positive messages and lessons are at the core of who I am, and they were a major reason I was able to survive my ordeal last year.

So this book is my way of providing similar encouragement to others, and also showing my appreciation for everyone who helped me, whether they knew it or not.

You've chosen U.S. Paralympics, a division of the U.S. Olympic Committee, as one of the beneficiaries for My Next Step. How did you become interested in U.S. Paralympics?

My relationship with [USOC Chief of Paralympics] Charlie Huebner and U.S. Paralympics goes back many years, when the organization hosted fundraising tournaments at Sanctuary, the private golf course my wife Gail and I own near Denver. I've always been impressed by the focus Charlie and the team bring to their work, and the spirit of encouragement they offer the athletes and their families. They make a tremendous difference in so many lives, and I’m proud to contribute in any way.

I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where I don’t need any money out of this project, so even before the story was written, I identified three very worthy organizations that could benefit from every single book sold: U.S. Paralympics, Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and Susan G. Komen for the Cure. They are splitting 100 percent of the proceeds. I hope people realize that when they buy the book, they're helping these very fine organizations.

Why is the Paralympic Movement important to you?

I have tremendous admiration and respect for Paralympic athletes, and I've spent my life beside someone who embodies their spirit. My wife, Gail, was severely injured in a plane crash 30 years ago, and she remains partially paralyzed on one side. Her injuries have limited her in some respects, but at the same time she greets each day with resolve and courage, making the absolute most of what she has. Gail isn't a world-class athlete, but she enjoys an active, satisfying life, in large part because she refuses to let her physical limitations hold her back from activities she loves, like golf – and she’s the only one in my household with a hole-in-one.

My experience the past year taught me even more about the resolve of people like Paralympic athletes. One of the defining moments of my ordeal – perhaps the defining moment – came during a particularly difficult and terrifying night. I actually wanted to kill myself and end the pain and misery I was going through. I was convinced I was either going to die or be a paraplegic, and the thought of those two paths was just too much to take. But I had a conversation with myself, and somehow I realized what a horrible cop-out that would be. I was really upset with myself, and in that moment I decided to change my attitude and get back to the way I've always approached life. If I was going to be a paraplegic, I was going to be the best damn paraplegic people had even seen.

In many respects, I think anyone who aspires to be a Paralympic athlete, and then puts in the incredible amount of work it requires, must have a mindset along those same lines. They might not put it in those terms, but they've clearly accepted whatever has happened to them and then made the absolute best of it. That’s an attitude I want to support and encourage as much as I possibly can – in athletics, in business and in any aspect of life.

Your journey is similar to many of those in the Movement.

One of the ironic aspects about my journey is that after traveling around the world and putting myself into virtually every dangerous situation known to man – from car racing and big-game hunts to difficult SCUBA dives and parachuting – I was almost taken down by a fall in my own garage. I truly believe that’s where the infection started, when I accidently scraped my arm in a way that probably happens to tens of thousands of people every day.

Now that’s different than someone who’s injured in a car accident or some other type of sudden trauma, but after a while, when things started going downhill very rapidly, I was in the same boat as many of the Paralympic athletes. My life as I’d known it was going to be different than it was before. I was fortunate to regain my ability to walk – still a work in progress – but for a long time I had to deal with the possibility that I wouldn't.

I always held onto the goal of walking out of the hospital, but at the same time I realized that if my nerve was severed, that simply wasn’t going to happen. That’s one of the keys to setting goals; they have to be realistic and achievable. In my case I never got to the point of knowing for sure that my paraplegia would be permanent, so I was able to keep my initial goals, but if I had come to that point, I would have made new goals based on the different situation. I’d like to think that even if my ability to walk never returned, I would have found ways to make life in a wheelchair as great as it could possibly be.

While on the road to recovery, you battled not only with the physical aspect, but with depression. What were the biggest factors in helping you overcome that?

The physical aspect of my rehabilitation was extremely hard. The wonderful physical therapists who worked with me were demanding and absolutely essential to my recovery. I can honestly say I worked as hard as I possibly could in those sessions, and one reason for that was my refusal to waste their time, let them down and have them view me as a quitter. I cannot thank them enough for all they did for me.

That said, the mental challenge was the bigger part of my ordeal – because if I had gone into the therapy sessions with anything less than a pure commitment, we wouldn't have gotten anything accomplished. As I noted before, my thoughts verged on suicide during the worst nights. And make no mistake – that is as far from my normal mindset as you can be. I’m a tough SOB and I've never quit anything in my life. But the thought was there. And it was real. I had nightmares and hallucinations and the worst doubts I've ever had. Part of it was caused by medication, but part of it was me simply allowing myself to wallow. People need to be careful about that; it’s a slippery slope to depression, and you’re much better off stopping it early.

Somehow I fell into the pit of despair, and somehow I fought it off. I guess that’s one of the main things I want people to get from my story: You are not unusual in having these feelings. They happen to everyone, even to someone known for being the toughest guy in the room. Fight them! Refuse to give in! Dig down as deep as you can and tap into all of your reserves! Because the moment will pass, and if you see yourself making it through your ordeal, you will make it through.

In the book, you talk about “Just 10 steps.” If you could take 10 steps, you could take 20. Is that something of a mantra you've applied in other areas of your life as well?

As I note in the book, one of the primary influences in my life has been a book by a man named Napoleon Hill, published in 1937, called Think & Grow Rich. The title is a little off the mark; it relates more to the Depression era than to the real point of the book. It’s more about achieving anything than about money. But I read this book when I was 16 and I've read it countless times since. One of the main lessons in it is the importance of creating a plan, setting an achievable goal, writing it down and making it an obsession. In the hospital, that exact approach is what kept me moving forward.

It started even before 10 steps. Because of some issues on my backside, I had surgery that required me to lay absolutely still for 35 straight days. It isn't an easy thing to do, but I made it through. By the time I did that, my muscles had atrophied and I could barely move at all. As you can imagine, being in that state meant that people had to clean me and change my sheets and such, and I wanted to move beyond that. My first goal was to simply sit up, my second was to make a pivot move that would allow me to stand up, and my third was to walk 10 steps so I could make it to the bathroom on my own. If I could walk 10, I could walk 20. And if I could walk 20, I could walk 100, and so on. Each incremental goal was important. It gave me something to shoot for, and it provided a blueprint for achieving everything I wanted. I can’t tell you how important that was to me. In my mind, walking 10 steps was the start of freedom and independence. It was the start of a perfect life.

This approach applies to everything I've ever accomplished. The early days of RE/MAX were filled with small, incremental goals that led to bigger things. It’s become such a habit for me that my mind automatically breaks things down that way. It’s one reason I’m not afraid of big challenges that other people might back down from. I’m able to see that every gigantic endeavor is really just a series of small victories placed end to end. You start at the beginning, work as hard as you can, and never stop. After awhile, you realize you just accomplished something meaningful.

What do you hope people take away from My Next Step?

When all is said and done, this is a story about family and friends and an incredible group of professionals all focused on helping someone survive and recover. It’s a story about finding hope when everything looks hopeless. And it’s a story about never giving up, no matter what. I hope people who read it realize they can make it through anything, whether it’s a horrible illness, a devastating loss or anything else that has shaken their world. I made it through my crisis; you can make it through yours. Just never, ever quit – and you can do anything. 

To pre-order My Next Step: An Extraordinary Journey and Hope, visit MyNextStepBook.com. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to U.S. Paralympics.