Freedom!

I have not been blogging much over the past two years because I have been working on my master’s degree in occupational therapy. Well, I am happy to say that I graduated on May 15, 2016! This very nearly coincided with the 5 year anniversary since my accident. To celebrate these milestones, I took an amazing, emotionally charged, adventure-filled road trip! I have had about 6 weeks off before I start 6 months of fieldwork to complete my OT education. mOAB

Immediately after graduation I got in a car and drove to Moab, UT for Moab Mania, an off-road hand cycling trip organized by Telluride Adaptive Sports. My mom came along for the road trip and it was great to see this part of the world anew through her eyes, as she had never seen anything like it before. I will always have a special connection to this area and I am glad I get to keep coming back. As usual, the participants on the trip were me and a bunch of guys, but they were all really kind and interesting characters! I enjoyed getting to know each of them and I learned a lot from them about biking and life. It was awesome to see a group of 7 off-road hand cycles together, even if they left me in their dust!

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On the final day, one of the hand cyclists actually stayed behind to ride with me. He rode in front and waited for me to keep up during the entire trail. I am so grateful for this as I learned so much about technique and what the off-road hand cycle can do. I tried so much harder because I knew if he could do it, it was possible. This trip got me thinking about how the expectations of society or those surrounding us unconsciously affect us, even if unspoken.  We rise or fall to whatever expectations the people around us have, and this can especially effect those living with disabilities. I realized that I am able to accomplish so much more while surrounded by those who expect nothing less than awesomeness from me.

After Moab I drove down to Flagstaff to spend a few days with my amazing friend Montana. On the way we stopped at the Wupatki National Monument and biked 20 miles downhill under the light of the full moon. We transitioned through many different environments, from tall pine trees at the top of the mountain to open plains at the bottom. I was unable to take any pictures but I know this is a memory I will have for a lifetime as one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had! I then spent a freezing night sleeping in Montana’s van, which warmed my heart because of course I like that kind of stuff.

I took a day to drive up to the Grand Canyon by myself. This was exactly what I needed to reflect upon the last 5 years. I hiked a trail called the “Million Year Trail,” representing the time it took for the 5000 foot deep Grand Canyon to be carved. Each yard was marked with increasing increments of time, helping the mind to even begin to conceive of that much time. 5 years was at the very beginning, which helped me to put in perspective how small my injury and my lifetime is, compared with humanity, this earth, and this universe.

I then spent some time with my old friends and family in Carlsbad, California. I had a great time, but had a lot of mixed emotions approaching my 5 year anniversary and being where I lived right before my injury. My friends swear that a lot has changed, but I found myself on the same dance floor of the same bar we partied at nights before my injury- the last time I danced on my two legs. As happy as I am today, I realize that grief over this injury is something that will resurface throughout my life. I have gained so much through this experience, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t lost some things. Even now, I feel like I am exposing a weakness by admitting this. The key, I have learned, is to not dwell on the loss, but to focus on the positive thoughts that serve you better. Everyone has to deal with this, but I find it hard to accept that I won’t get to do all the things in this life! I made a decision, and my life went in this direction. This is life 🙂

 

“Live your life so that the fear of death can never enter your heart … Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and in the service of your people…

Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none. When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself…

When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose lives are filled with the fear of death, so that when time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”

– Native american wisdom, attributed to Tecumseh

 

 

 

 

Summer Skiing in Chile

I am so grateful for the recent opportunity to travel internationally for the first time since my injury. Travel has been such an important part of my life, so I can’t describe the excitement I felt as I boarded the 9.5 hour flight to Santiago, Chile, on a continent I have never touched. I felt excited rather than scared because I had my friend Devin to travel with, one of the most solid guys I have ever met. Amping up the excitement was the fact that we were traveling to the Chilean Andes in South America to ski in *our* summertime, and that we were meeting a group of adaptive athletes organized by Telluride Adaptive Sports.

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This trip ended up to be challenging in a lot of unexpected ways. I got sick, fell a lot (on and off the slopes), and constantly battled my ego because of not skiing as well as I would have liked. But the trip was made worthwhile by the people I met along the way, especially the 6 veterans that were the other athletes on this trip.

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The military is something I have avoided thinking about for much of my life. Even though I saw the Twin Towers fall when I lived in New York, I have opposed and even protested against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not that I am proud of this, but I pictured everyone in the military as narrowly as American Sniper portrayed Chris Kyle, as people from the middle of the country singularly motivated to protect and defend America against the “other.” I went into the trip excited to have my preconceptions dispelled, and they were. I saw that veterans and people in the military are as varied and complex as the general population. I also witnessed what I knew to be true, the amazing healing power of skiing after a traumatic experience. I was touched by each and every one of these men and I am incredibly grateful to them, but I will respect their privacy and leave it at that. If any of you are reading this, thank you for putting your life on the line, for letting me ask questions, and for letting me in on *some* of your jokes.

I was also grateful to have the presence of an amazing woman on the trip, Sheila. She was so humble that I was constantly blown away at how cool she was as the details of her life were slowly revealed throughout the week. After running a ranch in Colorado for many years, she now works at the airport so she can travel the world. She has a wonderful family and passion for life that I would aspire to. Thank you, Sheila, for all the tea, wonderful chats, and for teaching me gin rummy!

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Thanks again to Devin for being an awesome travel partner and to Tim from Telluride Adaptive Sports for organizing the trip! I’ll let the pictures speak for the rest.

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Olympic Discovery

Late one winter night, probably while avoiding schoolwork, I stumbled upon information about the Olympic Discovery Trail, 120 miles of paved bike trail across the Olympic Peninsula in northwest Washington. The seed was planted. It has been so awesome to watch this idea grow, evolve, and bloom into one of the most amazing trips of my entire life.

It is important for me to set crazy goals and work towards them, but this trip wouldn’t have happened the way it did if I hadn’t met Josh at an adaptive sports event. Not only was he “in” almost right away, he asked the important question, “When?” and we nailed down the dates! By the time the date rolled around, we had 8 friends committed to riding with us and helping us make it happen over 4 days. There were so many beautiful parts of this trip, but I think the greatest part was this amazing group of people!

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There were plenty of insightful conversations, goofiness, and of course adventure. The 120 mile paved bike trail advertised online is in reality only half done! There was an entire spectacular day of riding on a designated bike trail, and the rest of the time was on a combination of roads, gravel, or dirt.

When we reached Lake Crescent on day 3, we had the choice to take an unpaved, dirt trail north of the lake, or the winding and shoulder-less Highway 101 to the south. This decision happened to fall on Sunday afternoon when many of our group had to head home. Three women stepped up to the task of taking the unknown dirt trail to the north, Elise, Karin, and Kira. We had no idea what lay in front of us.

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It began harmlessly and just as we began to pat ourselves on the back for making this excellent choice, the trail steeply descended. Our friends carefully carried Josh and I individually over rocks and roots. My extremely low handcycle bottomed out on every little thing. After a short time, we felt that we must go forward because returning the way we came seemed unimaginable. Around every bend seemed to be worse and worse obstacles. Josh and I were completely reliant on our friends to get us out of there safely. Admittedly, I felt exhilaration coursing through my bloodstream. It was the feeling I had been addicted to while climbing, that of encountering the unknown.

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The trail got narrower and narrower, and dropped down steeply into the water on one side. At one point it appeared to peter out entirely but thankfully, it continued. I unfortunately don’t have pictures of the worst of it; I was holding my breath as my friends lifted Josh after carrying me through a sketchy section. After miles of this, I was so grateful I kissed the pavement when I finally reached it! I feel much closer to Elise, Karin, and Kira, these strong women that kept calm and strong under a lot of pressure.

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Because of them Josh, Elise and I are able to feel like we completed the Olympic Discovery Trail and we all have memories that we will cherish for a lifetime!

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I had a lot of time to think, and I spent a lot of time thinking silly thoughts about who was my “hero” of the trip. Originally, I thought it would be Josh, who was paralyzed just months ago in an ice climbing accident. He is so strong, physically and mentally, and has thrown himself fully into adaptive sports and is open to whatever opportunities arise in this life as a paraplegic.

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And then there was John, Josh’s ICU nurse who later became his friend. He signed on at the last minute, and being that he recently hurt his wrist, he was happy to drive the support van for the entire trip! A photographer and an all around godsend, he popped out at random locations throughout the day taking pictures or handing out pepperoni pizza, ice cream, and other much needed treats.

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There was Kira, my friend from school who drove up from Portland for this trip. This super-human woman pushed me for miles, either running next to me or jumping off her bike to push if a hill got too steep. She would throw huge boulders off of the trail like a beast, and all with incredible stoke and a smile on her face like this:

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Another person who brought incredible energy to the trip was my friend Karin from school. She was goofy and exuberant, as well as strong. I am grateful to feel closer to Karin and Elise, classmates that I hardly knew, after our adventure around the lake.

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Elise! This friend from school had ridden a max of 12 miles before this trip and kept warning me that she might not be able to hang. After riding over 25 miles a day for 3 days she decided to extend her trip so she could complete the entire Discovery Trail. It was so awesome watching her surprise herself with this physical feat!

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And there was Seth, my friend from Bend who drove over 7 hours to ride with us for the weekend! Having skied and biked with Seth in Bend, I know how calm under pressure and ingenious he is. I was so glad he came!

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Chad and Emily, Josh’s friends and new friends of mine, were always there offering assistance or refreshment, including a Moscow mule at the end of the day complete with copper cup. These two are obviously pros that camp in style!

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And now, I am preparing for the greatest adventure of all, a ski trip to Chile! Next week, I am meeting 5 other adaptive athletes and friends in the Andes on a trip organized by Telluride Adaptive Sports.

Until then, check out more pics from this amazing trip!:

Moab

Immediately after the end of the semester, I drove with some friends to Moab, Utah to pick up my new Reactive Adaptations off-road handcycle and do some filming for Falling Into Place, a short film by the GoHawkeye Foundation. This trip was incredible on so many levels, it’s hard to know what to write about! I surely could write yet another post about how amazing my friends are and how grateful I am for them! I could write about the kindness of strangers, such as Hawkeye Johnson, a retired man who generously spends his time hiking and fundraising for adaptive equipment, or any of the 25 volunteers that came out to make this production happen.

This trip was extremely important to me because it echoed many aspects of my life before my injury. Most importantly, it was a road trip. It seems simple, but there is a certain feeling that comes with packing up the car and just driving away from home. Road tripping was such a huge part of my previous life, and yet such a subtle part I didn’t realize I how much I missed it until I embarked again. I again got to feel that great expansiveness as I blasted my music while crossing entire states and witnessing the wide open spaces of the American West. When road tripping (as opposed to flying), I have a greater connection to the place I am traveling to, having seen with my own eyes the space traversed to get there. For years, I have longed to go back to Moab, a place that was so meaningful to me during my climbing career, but I knew it would be heartbreaking unless I had a new focus to bring me back. Mountain biking was just the thing, and it felt so great to be back in this incredible environment and have a new way to access it. Not only that, but some old friends who knew me before were able to come out and visit, which meant the world to me!

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Pang and I visit Milt’s, our favorite burger joint!

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Montana and I go for a stroll

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Shooting on the Colorado

The filming was intense. I am in awe of how much work is involved in creating a short film. It was hard to get used to all the attention, even for an only child like me! I could not have done it without the support of my friends Heather, Galen, and Claire.

One of the most amazing parts of this journey was meeting Kirk Williams of Birds Eye Optics. Kirk did aerial photography of the mountain biking scenes with a drone. Despite being quadriplegic from a mountain biking accident, he controls the copter with a remote control adapted with straws that he can hold. Kirk travels independently in his tricked-out van, which includes a wheelchair lift and a bed. As a person with a spinal cord injury, an occupational therapy student, and just a curious human being, I cherished hearing his story and all of the adaptations he has made to become such a thriving individual. In school, we just completed a spinal cord injury unit where we memorized what key movements each level of injury has (or lacks). It is easy to focus on how devastating it would be to have a cervical spinal cord injury, so it was so incredibly awesome to see someone functioning so well in the world and finding something so perfectly suited for them.

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Kirk and Bella show me the van

I learned a lot of lessons from this man in a very short time. He helped me to reassess what I thought was possible and which of society’s rules can be broken if it is a barrier to living an active lifestyle. For example, most of the time Kirk cruises around without socks, sometimes without shoes. I watched how graciously he accepted help and how well he gives instructions. I realized that although I thought I had become someone who is good at accepting help, asking still makes me feel crappy inside. Just the other day, I had the snow tires on my car switched over and asked a friend to come help me get them out of the trunk. I had a realization that I had the choice not to ski, not have snow tires, and not to need help at that moment, but I would also not really be living my life to the fullest! It is by relying on friends, family, and community that I am able to live this amazing life, and it is worth asking for.

Ladies Session 2015

Every time I go to the Adaptive Sports Center in Crested Butte, Colorado I have an incredible trip. I come back recharged, fired up, raw, open, and grateful. Its hard to express how this year’s trip was more awesome than ever, but I’ll try! Highlights include finally meeting Hawkeye Johnson and my new mountain bike, skiing with Paralympic gold medalist monoskiers Alana Nichols and Sara Will, and getting to hang out with more women than ever at the “Ladies Session”!

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Photo: Pat Addabbo

My trip started out by meeting Hawkeye Johnson, the generous visionary who began the GoHawkeye Foundation and who will be donating to me my very own off-road hand cycle! After a day of skiing and filming for the short film, Falling Into Place, I got to visit the ReActive Adaptations workshop where my “Racing Raspberry” Nuke was unveiled. Needless to say, I love it! I was also curious about the adaptations owner Jake O’Connor has made to his shop to be able to build these bikes from his wheelchair. He showed me a bike frame on “the rotisserie”: a rotating spit-like object he built so he can weld the frame from all angles. He will make some final adjustments to my bike and I will meet her again in Moab, Utah in May when we will have an off-road adventure!

The next 3 days were filled with monoski lessons by ASC instructors and coaching by professional athletes. I was so excited to meet Alana Nichols, the first American woman to win a gold medal in both the summer and winter Paralympic games (she plays wheelchair basketball also). She’s kindof a big deal. But, I was especially happy to experience what a friendly, open, fun person she is! I learned so much skiing with her as well as with Sarah Will, who won 13 Paralympic medals. It was hugely helpful to see someone in the monoski demonstrating the techniques I am trying to learn. Thanks to Alana’s encouragement, I was able to load myself onto the lift! I accomplished this one time while having numerous debacles afterwards. However, I will choose to forget about these and focus on the fact that I felt independence once and now I know it is possible! I also met a woman who was injured at an even higher level than me and monoskis independently.

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While at the initial “Ladies Session” dinner, I was reminded of an important lesson. I was meeting a lot of people for the first time and it was not clear who was a participant, who was staff, and who was a professional athlete. Some of the women who I assumed were staff because they looked “normal” ended up to be professional athletes or participants with “disabilities” I couldn’t see. It was a good reminder that although I have been adaptive for almost 5 years now, I can still make the mistake of prejudging people or trying to place them into neat categories. Although this is a natural tendency, I am recommitted to avoiding that.

Throughout this trip I was uplifted not only by the professional athletes, but by the many women who have decided to make a disability into their strength, as well as instructors and staff of the Adaptive Sports Center who have bravely chosen to do what they love in life!

Thanks to the High Fives Foundation, the Challenged Athletes Foundation, and the Adaptive Sports Center for making this trip possible!

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Falling Into Place

As some of you may know, it was announced last year that I was the winner of an insane ReActive Adaptations mountain bike from the GoHawkeye Foundation. As part of the winnings, GoHawkeye is making a short film about my story and how much this bike means to me. In May we are going to ride and film a multi-day bike tour in the Moab area, which has been my dream for years! And, I am proud to announce, the title of this film will be “Falling Into Place.” This title is perfect because I really feel that life has taken me on such a wondrous and unexpected path after my traumatic fall.

Danielle Watson, "Falling Into Place" project

I began work on this film project last fall by driving down to Portland to a recording studio where I read the voiceover for the film. It was an awesome experience! Just like I imagined it, I was alone in a booth with a microphone and receiving instructions through headphones worn over one ear. Reading the script was more difficult than I imagined: trying to convey passion when you are alone and reading the same line over and over is tough. I have new respect for people who do this for a living.

After recording, we went to a park to do a photo shoot with Sarah Henderson of Sirena Pictures. My dog Chai crashed the photo shoot but he helped us to create some of the best pictures of the day, because my smile was genuine!

Danielle Watson, "Falling Into Place" project

I am so excited for May when I get to ride my new bike into the desert! The plan is to do part of the Kokopelli trail, a 150 mile trail from Fruita, Colorado to Moab, Utah. I spent a lot of time in the Moab area rock climbing and I can’t wait to get back there. I am psyched to meet Hawkeye and all of the generous people that are working on this project. I hope we can spread a message that changes people’s perspectives on disability and inspires people to ditch their excuses and go enjoy life!

Classified

“NEVER let anyone define what you are capable of by using parameters that don’t apply to you.” -Chuck Close

I recently visited Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, WA, one of the top 5 rehabilitation hospitals in this country. Since I am living so close at the moment, I wanted to check in with them for their expert opinion on various aspects of my injury. The appointment was extremely thorough, lasting for hours. They brought out a high tech piece of equipment: an open safety pin, and began poking me with it. This is the exam to classify spinal cord injury level. Although I have believed myself to be injured at the T6 vertebra level for the last 3.5 years, the doctor nonchalantly said, “We are reclassifying you as a T4.” I must have looked alarmed, because she backtracked and said, “Well, you are T4 on one side and T6 on the other, so we have to go with the higher level.”

These words threw me into a tailspin. Yes, nothing had changed from one moment to the next, and yet I felt something I had strongly identified with slipping away. After spinal cord injury, your injury level becomes part of your identity. When you meet someone else with SCI, the question, “What level are you?” inevitably comes up. It is (arguably) a good indicator of what you will or will not be able to do independently, your ability in sports, your lifestyle.

Why this change is so depressing is hard to explain, but the closest analogy I can think of is if someone told you that your name was not actually your name. Would this change anything anything about reality? No. But was your identity wrapped up in that name? Yes. I say “wrapped up in” because if there’s one thing I have learned, its that your identity is way more fluid and adaptable than you think it is. Why this need to classify and label things? Even the most unconventional among us cling to labels like “climber,” “artist,” or “yogi.” I had identified completely as a climber, and I realized after I woke up in a Denver hospital that, at the core, we defy labels.

If anything, this new “classification” makes what I have accomplished since my injury even more amazing. I am extremely grateful that I was classified as T6 at the start, because if not, I would have found it much more difficult to keep attempting to monoski. I was told that T6 was the cutoff for being able to monoski, because with an injury above that it is too hard to balance.  I took over 40 lessons and a lot of hard knocks to learn to ski, and I would have found it hard to keep the faith if I knew what harsh odds I was facing.

Already, I hear a pathetic, whiney little voice when I am trying something difficult saying, “But I’m only T4!” It is amazing how we adapt to the expectations we imagine. And yet I’ve realized that WE are in control of what is expected of ourselves. Set your expectations higher and you might just reach them. I have no idea what I am going to say the next time someone asks what “level” I am, but I know that I will not let it define what I am capable of.