The brothers argued. "I'm not going to do it!" Jesse said. "Let's leave!" Using his manual controls, Ted edged the car closer to where Streeter had fallen. Jesse yelled, "Don't do it!" Ted was not listening. He leaned out the window with the other .357 Magnum and killed Streeter with a shot to the neck that exited his right ear.
The Christmas carnage was complete. "Even now," Ted wrote two days later, "I shiver at the thought of being taken captive. I decided my own sentence when I pulled the trigger. Now I have to live with the remembrance of Streeter's scream as I plugged him with the first couple bullets."
The fall that changed Ted Ernst's life happened 11 years ago, but he remembers it as though it were yesterday. His father, Ed, was a horse logger, cutting down trees and hauling them out of the woods by horse-drawn rigs, and Ted recalls, on that August day in 1989, when he was 11, climbing a tall Douglas fir with nine-year-old Jesse to see if they could spot their father driving home. The boys were jumping on branches, trying to break them off. Jesse jumped on one young branch until he heard it crack. Then Ted jumped on the same limb until it broke. He dropped 60 feet, severing his spine when he hit the ground. "Instantly I knew," he says. "Even before Mom got there. She was calling, 'Oh, Ted! I told you not to do that!' I could not feel my legs. They were dead. I knew it would be forever. I just accepted it right then at the bottom of the tree."
Ted never went through the grieving process that almost always attends such a devastating loss: the denial, anger, bargaining and finally acceptance, with bouts of dark depression along the way. "Never even a down day," says Jeff Moser, one of Ted's teachers and coaches at the Flathead Valley Christian School in Kalispell. "And he had every right to be depressed."
That he would plunge into wheelchair racing just months after the accident surprised no one who had known him when he was a wisp of 10-year-old smoke on country roads, often running alone as he trained for the 10-kilometer races he would enter around the state. ("I loved it—the energy, the speed, the wind through the hair," Ernst says. "There's nothing like speed. Speed and heights.") Or when he was striking Ping-Pong balls so deftly at summer camp that he would one day win medals at the junior national wheelchair championships and be invited by the American Wheelchair Table Tennis Association to its developmental camp for the U.S. Paralympic team.
To everything he did as a young athlete, even rehabilitation, Ernst brought an uncommon energy and drive that belied his years. He and his chair became one. "He was exceptional in his willingness to work," says Knut Skybak, his physical therapist after the accident. "This was supernatural for any patient, especially for an 11-year-old. Gung ho."
In his consuming love of racing, of competition and speed, Ernst would express himself with his hands and arms as he no longer could with his feet and legs. Within eight months of the accident, using money donated by the sympathetic Flathead County community, he bought his first three-wheel racing chair and began making news with it. On May 6, 1990, the 12-year-old entered one of the most challenging road races in the Northwest, the 12-kilometer Bloomsday in Spokane. He was the youngest wheeler ever allowed in the race. Since the course has two very steep hills—chairs can reach 40 mph speeding down them—the wheelchair coordinator for the race, Tom Cameron, allowed the boy to compete only if he obeyed what is still known at Blooms-day as the Ted Ernst Rule, a restriction designed to keep youngsters from traveling at breakneck speeds: "On downhills, you're not allowed to pass anyone."
Ted's finish made all the papers. Pushing hard up Doomsday Hill, he caught the oldest wheeler in U.S. racing, 77-year-old Max Rhodes, and for the final 2� miles the two went wheel-to-wheel to the finish, racing the final yards to gusting cheers, in identical time, and shaking hands at the line. "The youngest and the oldest crossed the finish line side by side," recalls Cameron. "It was beautiful."
That summer, in his first appearance at the junior nationals, at Fort Collins, Colo., little Teddy Ernst, all 85 pounds of him, won three gold medals and set two national age-group records, when he pushed 100 meters in 21.36 seconds and 200 meters in 41.63. For the next seven years he rarely finished worse than third in the nationals in his four best distances (the 100,200,400 and 1,500 meters), and he competed in road races around the country. He became a minor celebrity around Flathead County, and the local papers, the Bigfork Eagle and the Daily Inter Lake, ran news and feature stories on him, often with pictures of him pushing his chair or holding its 10-pound frame above his head. "I tell you, people were real supportive and friendly after a couple of years," Ernst says. "I couldn't have done it alone."
Seeking money to help cover his racing bills, Ted passed out cards and T-shirts bearing his slogan—IF YOU CAN'T STAND UP, STAND OUT—and at one point, as he soared through the mid-'90s, he was sending out a monthly letter about his training and racing to some 60 sponsors, including PowerBar and Quickie wheelchairs, and cheerily thanking them for their help.