They’re called boomerang kids—young adults who can’t survive outside the nest and who return to Mommy’s basement. In 1962 in Salt Lake City, a teenager named Russell Redenbaugh was preparing for his boomerang role. He was just drifting. After high school he thought he might get a job in the family’s small candy factory.
His only passion was model rockets. But in May 1962, one blew up in his face. Redenbaugh almost bled to death and was immediately blinded in one eye. He lost part of a thumb and half his fingers. Months later he lost sight in the other eye.
Then something changed. When the last surgery failed to save his eye, “that very day—in that hospital bed—I made some declarations,” says Redenbaugh. “I declared that I would not be dependent, that I would not be poor, that I would not live at home, that I would live in the sighted world, doing sighted things.”
I got to know Redenbaugh about 10 years ago. He, his wife, Natalia, and their guide dog were regular attendees at George Gilder’s Telecosm conference. I knew Redenbaugh was an investor of some kind. I was astonished when Steve Forbes said Redenbaugh was also a champion jujitsu athlete. I assumed he’d won against other disabled athletes. A proud man of military bearing, he seemed the sort who didn’t like to talk about his disability.
This April at a TED conference in Bend, Oregon, Redenbaugh gave an 18-minute talk about his life. I watched, dumbstruck by its power (Google ‘Redenbaugh TED’). So I called him to get the rest of the story. It turns out he never liked to talk about his disability because he doesn’t think of himself as disabled, but “post-traumatic gifted”.
Redenbaugh graduated from the University of Utah, first in his class. He applied to the business schools at Harvard and Stanford—and was turned down. “Both said, ‘No one who is blind could manage a programme as difficult as ours,’” Redenbaugh says. “I don’t know how they knew, because they had never admitted anyone who was blind.” He flew to Philadelphia to make a personal appeal to the admissions dean at the Wharton School. He got in—and graduated fifth in his class.
Job offers were slow. He got only one—from a tiny money management firm in Philadelphia, Cooke & Bieler. That was in 1969. By the late 1980s Redenbaugh sold his partnership and was rich. “I sold because I couldn’t convince my partners that the fall of the Berlin Wall was a good thing and that the 1990s would be great for stocks.” Some see better than others.
Senator Bob Dole appointed Redenbaugh to the US Commission on Civil Rights, which for Redenbaugh was—and I apologise—an eye-opener. He concluded that the commission’s goal was to expand the list of victims, not solve problems.
What was next? “I wanted to do something at which I could win.” For years Redenbaugh had a personal trainer, who also taught jujitsu. Eventually Redenbaugh’s curiosity got the better of him.
“It’s like judo but rougher. You start standing up, as in judo, but the first point is to take your opponent to the mat; then the fight continues, often on the mat. I discovered that being blind was not the big problem, as long as I didn’t let go of my opponent.” Redenbaugh pauses. “The big problem was not being able to make grips. In jujitsu you fight with your hands, arms, legs and feet. You fight for joint locks and choke holds.”
In 2003, Redenbaugh went to Brazil for the International Competition for Master Seniors. He won gold. Let me be clear: He won gold in open competition. All of his opponents were sighted. None was missing a thumb and half their fingers. “Many people thought that was an accident or a fluke, or just luck.” So he returned in 2004 and 2005. “And I got two more gold medals.”
Your move, boomerangers.
Rich Karlgaard is the publisher at Forbes