Sports | by Kristin Beale

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on September 23, 2019 # Exercise, Adaptive Sports, SCI Awareness

Since I was a young kid until my freshman year of high school, I was on a sports team. My athletic career started with soccer and swimming, then moved to competition cheerleading, field hockey, and lacrosse as I grew older. I loved them all. I loved being able to physically work hard and see the result of my effort in a tight body, bigger muscles, and healthy skin. I was constantly pushing myself to do better in those sports, truly because I wanted it. As a kid, I would play in the neighborhood after school, and when I got older, I played on the field or cheer gym after homework.

As the summer after my freshman year of high school came to close, I was in a Jet Ski accident that left my friend, the driver of my ski, dead on impact. I was fortunate enough to survive, but I was plagued by paralysis from the torso down – my T8 vertebrae, to be exact. I thought I lost everything. Actually, my doctors told me I lost everything; they said that I won’t ever walk or function as a normal person again. As assumption would lead, that also meant I would have to give up all my sports.

For the first year after my accident, working out in the gym was my sport. I had never liked the gym as a teenager and I can’t say I had a change in perspective, but I thought it was the only thing I had. So, that’s what I did: 2-3 hour-long workouts, three times per week on the most consistent schedule I’ve ever had for physical activity. I put my whole heart into strengthening my upper body and core muscles in the luxury of YMCA air conditioning.

But going to the gym still was, and is, boring to me.

About one year into my paralysis, I discovered my first sport: skiing. I skied in Virginia for two seasons and even in Colorado with the Wounded Warriors, before I decided I simply do not like the cold. Speaking more to my ability, I did not like continuous face-plants in the snow.

So, I moved to my next sport: tennis. Like skiing, I fell into and back out of love with it. This time, it was a matter of realizing that I just don’t have the coordination. No matter how many practices I attended, I could not accomplish holding a racket while driving my wheelchair across the court, all in time to hit the next ball coming at me. Bravo to anyone who has that skill, but it’s not me.

After skiing and tennis, I cycled through a seemingly never-ending (14 and counting) scroll of adaptive sports, some I loved and others I couldn’t stick to. The sport I have yet to fall out of love with is handcycling. I was introduced to a handcycle by way of Achilles International and was supported in my participation in the 2011 New York Marathon. I’ve completed seven marathons since then, a majority as a proud member of Team Reeve.

Also, at the top of my list is wheelchair fencing. Last year, I attended a fencing demonstration at a local hospital just for the story to tell; I figured there’s no chance I can be a fencer with my small frame and borderline-oversensitive personality, so I was merely chasing the story. Thanks to my inability to say “no” to an invitation, I attended a fencing competition the next day, said “yes” to a recommendation for private lessons, and fell in love with the sport. In the same year, I was able to train with Paralympians at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado, and I’m destined for a lifetime of fencing competitions around the country and world. Lesson learned, I guess: always say “yes.”

Just kidding – say “no” to some things. The real lesson is just to keep an open mind.

For me, adaptive sports mean more than exercising my body to make it stronger. They give me something that people can see and feel impressed with, instead of feeling pity for my situation and assumed inabilities. Sports give me the opportunity to physically work hard and see the result of my effort reflected in my time, performance, and/or muscle definition. My life post-injury has been filled with ambiguity and blurry lines in terms of my body, and adaptive sports have given me an opportunity to take some of that back.

Had I not been in this accident, I doubt I would have tried as many sports than I have after my injury, and it’s one of my most helpful tools for coping with and accepting my body. Having been involved in both able-bodied and adaptive sports, I’m confident in saying that adaptive sports are more fun. It’s easy for people to overlook us athletically because of our disability, and equally as easy for us to believe them, but I’ve yet to find a sport without a workaround.

In addition to giving me back a feeling of normalcy I had from being involved in a sports team or platform, adaptive sports help me maintain a healthy body for transfers, maneuvering around our inaccessible world, and rehabilitation of my body. Best of all, adaptive sports keep me from having to go to the gym, and that’s all it takes to convince me.