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It's Not Just a Game

By: Margie Smith Holt

Wheelchair rugby saved AJ Nanayakkara's life. Now, with support from the Reeve Foundation, he's helping others get in the game.

The first time AJ Nanayakkara tried to kill himself, he took an overdose of sleeping pills. He slept for three days, but didn't die.

The second time, he tried stabbing himself to death. With limited use of his hands and no function in his fingers, a small paring knife was the only weapon he could handle.

"This is how badly I wanted to die. I took a knife and I just started carving away at my stomach," he says. "I was hoping to bleed to death and get it over with."

Next came poison. Then he wrapped the cord from his hospital bed around his neck, but couldn't get into position to tighten the noose.

"I didn't have enough function," he explains. "If I had a little more function, I might have succeeded.

"I tried over a dozen different suicide attempts. Obviously, they all failed. But I kept trying. The only thing that got me to the next day was that eventually, hopefully, some day this would all be over. And after three years of failed attempts, I felt like I couldn't even do that right. I just felt like an utter failure."

AJ's wedding
AJ at his wedding.

"Utter failure" are two words that no one would use to describe AJ today. The 40-year-old founder and executive director of Global Abilities -- a Quality of Life grant recipient of the Reeve Foundation -- is by anyone's definition wildly successful. He's a counselor, a consultant, a coach, and a community leader. He's a policy assistant at the National Disability Rights Network. He's married and hoping to start a family soon. He's an athlete and a scholar, and has a master's in International Affairs from American University. He's a mentor and a motivational speaker. He has a lot to say. And the Reeve Foundation is helping him say it.

"The Reeve Foundation has been a great supporter of Global Abilities," AJ says.

AJ was 20 years old when he was injured in a martial arts accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down (a C5/C6 injury). He was living in the Philadelphia suburbs at the time, working out with a friend at the gym late one Saturday night. AJ flipped and landed on his head.

"I didn't lose consciousness," he recalls. "I knew right away it was serious because I couldn't feel -- I couldn't move anything below my neck."

(Ironically, the friend with whom he had been sparring was in a wheelchair when AJ first met him -- as a volunteer in a martial arts program for the disabled. The friend eventually recovered from his spinal cord injury.)

AJ spent four months at a rehabilitation hospital in Philadelphia. Then he went home in despair.

"I went through rehab, I went through the motions, but all I wanted to do was crawl into a hole and die," he says. "I was supposed to be the one taking care of people, not the other way around. I thought I was going to be a burden on everyone I knew for the rest of my life... I didn't see the sense of living with a disability."

"I just wanted to sit there, be left alone, and eventually, hopefully, die. And I did that for eight full years."

Then one day, AJ saw a flyer for wheelchair rugby. It was his first step out of the hole.

AJ remembered that throughout rehab, nurses and therapists had encouraged him to get involved in recreation, but he resisted.

"I grew up playing sports. I was active. And I just didn't see the sense of sports and being in a wheelchair. They just didn't go together in my mind."

But after a decade of not doing anything -- and with nothing to lose -- he gave it a try. He went to a gym in a Philadelphia community center called Carousel House and was instantly intrigued by what he saw: people in wheelchairs -- with significant injuries and physical limitations -- engrossed in unbridled competition.

"I don't know if you've seen wheelchair rugby," says AJ. "but it looks like bumper cars on a basketball court. It's an exciting, full-contact sport. And it spoke to me."

And so he went back.

"I kept showing up at practice and all of a sudden I had something to look forward to besides dying," he says.

AJ, part of Team USA Stripes won the Gold medal at the 2005 World Wheelchair Games.
AJ, part of Team USA Stripes, won the Gold medal at the 2005 World Wheelchair Games.

Religiously, week after week, AJ attended wheelchair rugby. Then came skiing. And SCUBA. And cycling. He got so good at rugby, he made the U.S. national team and won a gold medal at the 2005 World Wheelchair Games in Brazil. And he was just getting started.

AJ became a believer in the power of recreation to battle the depression and social isolation many people experience after the safety net of rehab disappears and it's time to go it alone. ("The physical adjustment to an injury doesn't really take that long but the psychological and social adjustment, it can take months and even years," he says.) He began developing adaptive sports programs in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C., all the while dreaming of expanding his own efforts, which he did, in 2011, by founding the Global Abilities Foundation.

The all-volunteer organization held its first big event -- "Rec Fest" -- that September in Philadelphia with 500 attendees, 100 volunteers, and dozens of community groups working together. Activities ranged from SCUBA diving and rock climbing to gardening and miniature golf. And the location? Rec Fest was held at Carousel House -- where AJ's life turned around.

"It's like a home to me," he says.

Global Abilities built the first wheelchair-accessible vehicles in Sri Lanka
Global Abilities built the first wheelchair-accessible vehicles in Sri Lanka.

AJ says wheelchair sports also gave him the independence needed to visit his native Sri Lanka, something he thought he'd never again be able to do after sustaining his injury. With their dirt roads and dearth of accessible facilities, getting around in developing countries is difficult; but in Sri Lanka, it's getting easier since Global Abilities built the first wheelchair-accessible vehicles there. The organization has plans to return for more outreach in 2014.

In the U.S., Rec Fest is going strong. The third annual event was held September 28, 2013 in Philadelphia with support from the Reeve Foundation. A $5,000 Quality of Life grant bought building supplies and a trailer that will make Rec Fest mobile, enabling Global Abilities to expand into Baltimore next year.

"We're a very small organization so $5,000 goes a long way," says AJ. "The Rec Fest -- It's a unique event, the only time we have so many different events and organizations together. And it's something that's needed in the community, not just in Philadelphia but in other cities.

"When you start playing sports and getting active in recreation, you start feeling good again. You start feeling like you have control over your life again... It's basically therapy, but it just doesn't feel like therapy. And that's why I'm such a huge proponent."

About Global Abilities
Global Abilities We believe in civic engagement and the power of collaboration. Everyone on the GAF team is committed to community service and working together to achieve ambitious goals. We also believe in the motto, "nothing about us, without us." In addition to being founded by and led by an individual with a disability, other PWD are instrumental in guiding the long term strategies and implementing continuing operations at GAF. For more information visit GlobalAbilities.org.

Find out more about depression
Depression is found two or three times more often among people who are paralyzed than among the nondisabled – it is common but not normal. Read more from the Reeve Foundation's Paralysis Resource Center.

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Continue Christopher Reeve's LegacyPhoto by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders