Michael Lee ’90 Runs His Race

by Nathan Foster

Michael Lee ’90 flew headfirst in the icy slush and tumbled down the ski slope, hearing a snapping sound as he landed on his neck. Nearby skiers quickly called for rescue, and Lee was rushed to the hospital to receive a diagnosis that would change his life—a fractured C5 and partial paralysis in his left arm.

As an avid skier and runner, Lee initially felt terrified, and called out to God in his despair. “I said to Him, ‘God, no matter what I'm facing, your goodness is not on trial here. Whether I am healed or not in the way that I want to be, you're still good and you are going to cause this to work together for good in my life,” Lee said. “I started crying, but they were tears of joy.”

Lee’s response of steadfast trust stemmed from years of journeying with God, beginning when he arrived at Azusa Pacific University in 1986 as a new believer, eager to learn more. As a student, he played on the soccer team, joined the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, served as a resident advisor, and participated in a discipleship group led by former President Jon Wallace, DBA—as the APU community strengthened his faith in God. Lee’s mentoring relationship with Bible professor Bruce Baloain, Ph.D., led him to add a Biblical studies major on top of his business degree.

As his relationship with Christ grew, Lee wanted to share the Gospel with others. When he received an opportunity to work for the Duncan Toys Company and became a professional yo-yoer, a unique ministry emerged. Over time, he shared his testimony through yo-yoing to more than 1.7 million children in all 50 states and four continents, even performing three times at the White House. Lee saw God moving through his ministry—cultivating an even deeper faith in Him.

Following his yo-yoing career, Lee opened his own business in Seattle where he helps companies find administrative staffing. After a long week of work at his new job, on Valentine’s Day in 2016, Lee decided to go skiing, a decision that would alter the course of his life.

When he woke up in the hospital the day after the crash, an elder from his church stood by his bed, praying over him. Those prayers were heard. Two days later, Lee was released from the hospital with just a neck brace.

“My neurosurgeon said my neck had broken in just the right way,” Lee said. “He thought I might need surgery at first, but he determined the neck brace would be enough.”

With the help of meals from his small group and the care of his roommate, Lee began the slow road to recovery, trusting God along the way. After undergoing physical therapy, during his final appointment with the neurosurgeon, he received clearance for physical activities.

Just six months after his accident, Lee stood at the start line of the Spartan Race, wondering what he had gotten himself into. In contrast to popular races like the Tough Mudder, the Spartan presents even more physically challenging obstacles. If participants cannot successfully navigate an obstacle, they must complete 30 burpees before moving on. Many failed obstacles and more than 200 burpees later, Lee crossed the finish line in last place. Most importantly, he finished the race.

Lee decided to try it again, and again. Although he continued to finish near the back of the pack at first, he kept at it. He started to get better, train more, and work harder, as his rankings steadily improved until he achieved his first podium.

Lee went on to earn three more podium spots in 2018 and five in 2019, including a first place finish in his last race of the year. So far in 2020, Lee has competed in four races, placing among the top five competitors in all of them.

“I’ve had two races this year where I went head-to-head with Kevin Gilloti, a member of the Spartan Pro Team,” said Lee. “I was running neck and neck with him. I was pushing him and I couldn't believe it.”

Looking back, Lee said there is no way he could have predicted he would be here after his accident, when he cried out to God in his hospital bed. His trust in God, developed through his journey at APU, pushed him to keep moving forward.

“I want to use my Spartan journey to inspire others to run their race: I believe all things are possible to those who believe. God is able to do exceedingly more than we ask or imagine,” he said. “If this 52-year-old man can survive a near fatal accident, come back, complete 85 Spartan races, and thrive, others can too. What’s your race and how can you run it?”

Nathan is a public relations intern in the Office of University Relations. He is a senior double majoring in journalism and public relations.