Kari Swenson: Survivor, Part IV

This is part IV in my series on the disappearance of Kari Swenson.

For my other Kari Swenson posts, you can go here.

Summary of Previous Posts:

Twenty-two year old student Kari Swenson enjoyed running trails on her breaks from the Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky, Montana. On July 15, 1984, she encountered two men while trudging along a mountain path. One of the men grabbed and punched Kari, and then the two restrained her with nylon cord. They then led her off of the marked trail and into the wilderness. The kidnappers eventually set up camp where Kari spent the night chained to a tree. She learned that they planned to make her become the “wife” of the younger of the two "mountain men."

Unaware of the kidnapping but searching for Kari, two rescuers wandered into the area of the camp, and during the confusion, the younger attacker accidentally shot Kari in the chest.  One of the rescuers was also shot and killed and the attackers fled the scene--leaving Kari wounded and alone.  More than four hours later, law enforcement found Kari at the camp, and rescuers were able to airlift her to a local hospital. 




Don Nichols (father)

Don was convicted of kidnapping, deliberate homicide, and  aggravated assault in 1985, and received an 85 year sentence.  Don was eligible for parole in 2007, but his application was denied. Prior to the decision, Kari’s father Bob, a Professor Emeritus, encouraged a letter-writing campaign that likely had an impact on the Nichols’ parole board. Dr. Swenson wants Nichols to serve another 15 years at least.  Don's next opportunity for parole will be in 2012—the convicted man would be 81 years old then.

Dan Nichols (son)

During Dan’s trial, his defense attorney successfully portrayed the kidnapper's father as a controlling abuser of his son—a dad who had robbed Dan of a normal childhood. Obviously, testimony from multiple sources showing Dan to be concerned about Kari’s injuries and ecstatic when he was later informed that she had survived the shooting, helped his argument. Dan was convicted of lesser felony charges and sentenced to 25 years. He served 8 and was released in 1991. Reportedly, Dan’s still lives in Montana and works in construction.

Johnny France (sheriff)

Focusing on the victim, I did not discuss Sheriff Johnny France much. In tandem with another sheriff (the crime occurred on the border of two counties), France led the investigation and search for Kari. He was credited with single-handedly capturing Don and Dan Nichols as the kidnappers camped on snow-covered ranch land. Ironically, France used a similar ruse, the “don’t move you’re surrounded” bluff, to get the Nichols to surrender—a tactic that got rescuer Al Goldstein killed.

France’s popularity rocketed initially, and led to appearances on national television and a $50,000 contract for book rights to the story. Critics assailed France for appearing to profit from the incident--something the sheriff downplayed.

Combined with criticism from other law enforcement (that France was a show-off) and from Kari’s family (that France should have initiated the ground search earlier), France’s star-shine began to wane. As a result, a majority of local residents voted for France’s competitor in the following election, and Sheriff Johnny was defeated. France left law enforcement, focused on his private business interests, and still resides in Montana.

Kari Swenson

One would think Kari’s brush with death, would have resulted in an extended rehabilitation process. Just four months after the shooting and her hospitalization, Kari resumed serious physical training for the biathlon. Despite having to shelve her skiing workouts after a few weeks due to the intense pain (Kari admitted that she pushed herself too fast), she was able to win a race, and qualify for the 1985 World Championships. Competing at only a 75% to 80% level of what Kari felt she could perform prior to the shooting, she finished 26th at the international completion.

Kari competed again, but focused her energies on veterinary school. She still managed to offer analysis as an Olympic commentator during the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, and served as a technical consultant for the made-for-television movie about her terrifying encounter in the Montana wilderness—performing many of the skiing scenes herself. Now a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, Kari still lives and works in Montana.

On Kari

Of all the sports stars and celebrities that society expects us to admire, shouldn’t we hear more about inspiring survivors like Kari Swenson?

A person could very well have accepted his/her fate lying in the woods: "I am shot through the lung. No one knows I am here. I am going to die.”

Kari refused to quit. Her story is one that embodies tenacity-exhibited through her powerful will to live and triumph over evil despite facing enumerable odds.

In a few years, when my sons and daughter are older, should I impress them with one of the many brilliant game performances by athletes or celebrities or should I emphasize the courage of a virtually unknown woman named Kari Swenson who embodied tenacity?

My decision is an easy one.


I’ll have one more planned post on this series—what does Kari’s incident have to do with school shootings?

I’ll try to answer that question next Monday.

Previous posts in this series can be found here.


Travel Nurse Extraordinaire said...

I have really enjoyed these posts and look forward to the final one. I have always found the survival attitude amazing and Kari truly emobies it. I think anyone can learn a lesson from her.

Clara said...

Wow Slam, thanks for this post, it was trully inspiring.
Kari is for sure a true hero and nothing less.

suz said...

Great story; thanks for sharing it. I'm so glad she survived!

J. J. in Phila said...

Great story. I was interested in the sheriff's fate.

Herding Cats said...

I've really enjoyed reading this story, as I was two when it all happened, and I have no recollection. She really is a role model!

OneSurvivor said...

I so agree about who we should expose our children to as "heroes". I am so glad that I read this. We need to be holding up people like this...people who fight for life and have a purpose.

Thanks for sharing, Slam Dunks.

4roots said...

brilliant writing...with purpose.

Bringing these kinds of stories back to our minds are important...helping us remember these everyday people who are the real heroes of our world...the people to choose to live and bring light to others.

Thank you.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I couldn't wait for today to hear how this ended. Kari really is a survivor. What an amazing recovery, though I'm sure emotionally it took time. That's why she focused her energies on training.

SuziCate said...

Excellent series. Thank you. Kari is definitley an aspiring athlete and a fine human being.

My Husband's Watching TV... said...

I liked this story Slam! Great job and Kari is quite the young woman.

Nikole Hahn said...

Amazing! I wish more stories like this and the aftermath would be reported instead of who is on steroids and what celebrity did what...

Angelia Sims Hardy said...

This is why I love that show, "I Shouldn't Be Alive". It's that courage and determination of surpassing any natural survival. Amazing. Great wrap-up and I'm glad the Dad is still in jail!

lifeshighway said...

Well written article and very enjoyable. I agree, more children should know of the true heroes who are not celebrated nearly enough.

BobKat said...


To your kids I would suggest that there is a hero, champion, survivor in all of us.

More stories that make us think, and connect to our human spirit would be appreciate.

Nice job!

jodeeluna said...

What an amazing story of human resilience. Thank you for sharing this. I'll complain less often after reading Kari's story.

Crystal Escobar said...

Oh wow, that is a crazy story, but so cool to hear that Kari survived.

lom said...

I have found these posts both horrifying and compelling, a true show of the human sprit.

kcinnova said...

You are right, of course -- reading about Kari Swenson, her strength and drive, and her winning attitude is exactly the kind of lesson we need to share with our kids.

Ann T. said...

Dear Slamdunk,
Yeah, what a terrible story, but uplifting too.

I am glad she lived. And I think she is more than a survivor. She is an achiever. A hero indeed.

Thanks for the inspiration,
Ann T.

Anonymous said...

i has in libby mountana that day tryed to vol ..was turned away. like 2k others .. after 1.5 mill miles otr driver.ive opened my med bag many times .ive carryed it 40+ years ..did you take your 1st aid class. why not ????best wishes love carry on ..jr gettysburg pa

Anonymous said...

Yes, we are all glad she survived. She is an inspiration of courage. But you don't have your facts right at all and I'm calling you on it. I lived the whole thing, and you are just writing bullshit. I live in the Madison Valley, and watched very closely. Johnny France is a hero, and jealosy is an ugly emotion.

Slamdunk said...

@ Anonymous. I always appreciate feedback and am interested in hearing different perspectives. You are welcome to email me directly at theslamdunktrove@gmail.com .