This New Book Recounts a Local Man’s Life Before and After Paralysis

Glendale native Tom Haig had a career as a high diver before an accident left him wheelchair-bound.

Glendale native Tom Haig’s astonishing journey, from winning a state diving championship as a student at Nicolet High School to traveling the globe as a professional high diver and finally rolling through the streets of Katmandu and Dakar in a wheelchair, is detailed in his recently published book, Global Nomad: My Travels through Diving, Tragedy, and Rebirth.

In the book, Haig shares tales of his early free-wheeling life of traveling to more than 50 countries as a professional diver and tells the story of the life-changing accident at age 35 that left him paralyzed from the waist down and wheelchair-bound. He then relates his extraordinary return to adventure – racing in marathons, traveling solo in some of the world’s poorest countries, meeting the Dalai Lama, jamming with jazz great Oscar Klein, holding disability seminars and starting the International Rehabilitation Forum with his physician brother, Andy Haig.  

He also bares the unvarnished aftermath and heartbreaking vulnerabilities that follow permanent paralysis.

Tom Haig at Mifflin Street Dive in Berlin, 1986; Photo by Devin Wells



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“Tom Haig has led an amazing life, and he is still living it,” Olympic swimming champion, network broadcaster, author and speaker John Naber said. “This global nomad meets interesting people as he overcomes challenges that might frighten an Olympian. Tom and his life are an inspiration.”

An overflow crowd of about 100 people greeted Haig at a book signing event on Sunday at the North Shore Library in Glendale, co-sponsored by Milwaukee’s Boswell Book Company. Mary Schmitt Boyer, a former Milwaukee Journal sports reporter and author, moderated the lively session as Haig, sporting a faded Clay Matthews Green Bay Packers jersey, delivered remarks and fielded audience questions. 

Tom Haig (left) at the North Shore Public Library; Photo by Rich Rovito

Haig recalled traveling to Luxembourg on his first international trip and then, despite being broke, hungry and far from a flight home, how he and his brother, Dan, headed to Venice, Italy. This led to Haig’s “Bridge to Venice” rule, which involves testing life’s limits.

Living by that pact, Tom Haig started work as a performance high diver in Missouri. Several times a day, he climbed to a small platform, lit himself on fire, and dove 70 mph into a lake. Soon he was traveling all over the world, including to the 1989 Acapulco Cliff Diving Contest. 

In France he fell in love with cycling and carried a new passion back to Portland, Oregon, until one Sunday morning in September 1996 when he crashed headfirst into a truck and found himself living a very different life – from a wheelchair. 

His recovery—mentally, physically and emotionally—was excruciating. 

Tom Haig on the Great Wall of China; Photo by Andy Haig

“I’d been in car accidents, fallen from water towers, and landed flat on my back from 70-foot multiple somersaulting dives,” he said. “No crying. I used to swear, jump up and down and tell jokes. Anything but cry. I was going to have to learn how to cry again, or I wasn’t going to survive. Then again, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to survive.”

Writing the book turned out to be therapeutic for Haig.

“I just hadn’t looked at how different my life was then and how it was going to be. I’d never really dealt with,” Haig said. “I was getting new insights and feeling better about things.”

Haig, who was also inducted into the Nicolet High School Athletic Hall of Fame over the weekend, currently lives in Portland. He speaks and writes on disability issues. 

“Global Nomad,” from Washington State University’s Basalt Books, is available at bookstores nationwide, direct from Basalt Books at 800-354-7360, or online at

Tom Haig at Dome of the Rock; Photo courtesy of Tom Haig
Tom Haig in Giza; Photo courtesy of Tom Haig



Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.