When traveling the path of life, it's easier when you have someone by your side to share the ups and downs.
People with spinal-cord injury spend the majority of time in rehabilitation learning the basics of their new bodies and how they function — dealing with a halo, recovering from surgeries, breathing through a trach. Then they move on to sitting up unassisted, feeding themselves, tying their shoes and getting in and out of bed. They leave the hospital with the skillset to get by, but have so much left to learn. Having someone there as a mentor, counselor and an inspiration can take them well beyond trial and error.
Two years ago, James Sa was living in Michigan and enjoying his senior year at Hope College. He was a fierce competitor, nicknamed Zeus by his fraternity brothers for his size and competitive nature. He loved to play the guitar and design tattoos for friends. On July 31, 2011, he was competing in the Warrior Dash, a 5k obstacle race, when he broke his neck in a shallow mud pit. He spent two weeks in a medically induced coma, another three weeks in ICU and then transferred to Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., for three months of rehabilitation.
“Rehab was pretty rough at first; it took a while before I was even healthy enough to sit up without passing out,” Sa says. “Once I got into it, rehab was actually kind of fun. It’s such a safe bubble from the real world, and I would turn everything into a competition in my head. I had it out bad to beat the paras in learning transfers and would refuse to let anyone help me do stuff until I got it down myself. The first time I put my own shoes on, it took me 45 minutes. To be honest, I became competitive as an outlet to distract me from facing the reality of my accident. But channeling the emotion into lifting sessions, physical therapy sessions and chair classes probably wasn’t a bad thing.”
While at Craig, Sa met two-time Paralympian Jason Regier, who told him about wheelchair rugby and encouraged him to check it out. Sa immediately started researching the sport online, and even at that early point he was making an impression.
Regier remembers Sa vividly: “I don’t know if I’ve met anybody so gung-ho to play wheelchair rugby, even though he had never seen the game live. James knew wheelchair rugby was for him.”
Sa’s brother Dan and his wife, who lived in San Diego, had recently had a baby, and rather than face another cold Michigan winter, Sa and his parents went to San Diego for several months to spend time with the family. Sa wasted no time getting to a Sharp Edge rugby practice.
At that first practice, Sa was quiet but intense. He watched the scrimmages and started commenting on the strategies used. It was impressive how quickly he grasped the intricacies of a truly unique sport. During a break I introduced him to the team, including my then-fiancé (now husband), Jeff “Odie” Odom.
Peer mentorship goes both ways. Odie was going through a difficult time when he first met Sa. He had just been cut from the U.S. Paralympic rugby team and was deeply disappointed. He tried branching out to different sports, but none of them quite compared. He stopped training and started spending more time at home. A calendar we thought would be full of training camps and culminating with a trip to London was now bare. I was busy with work and wedding planning, and I was treading a fine line between encouraging him to try new things and pushing him too hard, too soon.
I had heard of the Challenged Athletes Foundation’s peer mentorship program Project N.Ex.T. (New Expectations Today), which pairs similarly disabled athletes. Travis Ricks is program manager and an above-knee amputee mentor. His enthusiasm for the program was infectious.
“Being a mentor means being able to help someone succeed along the path of life through one’s own knowledge and past experiences,” says Ricks. “A mentor is someone who can passionately listen and relate to their mentee while helping them succeed through life’s struggles.”
It was just what Odie needed. He signed up, but before he could be matched, Sa rolled into the gym and into our lives.
Sa and Odie clicked immediately — they were both passionate about guitars, weightlifting and superheroes. Sa started coming out to practice with a borrowed rugby chair. For the first few months he needed assistance transferring into the chair or the car, he dropped every pass and would be exhausted after 20 minutes. But day by day he was pushed out of his comfort zone.
One day the guys cut practice short to get a few drinks on the beach. Sa’s brother wasn’t back yet to give him a ride, so if he wanted to come out with us he needed to learn a new transfer. They opted for Odie’s SUV (the guys didn’t want to make it too easy!), and Sa watched Odie demonstrate how to transfer in and out a few times. And then, with the team watching and jokingly making bets on how many times he would fall, Sa hoisted himself up and in on the first try. No one expected him to make that transfer on his own, at that height, his first time without a transfer board. But watching how someone else had already worked it out gave him the skills he needed. Well, that plus his desire to prove us wrong!
“James has given me a sense of focus and rejuvenation,” says Odie. “I remember how I felt at the beginning — that whole sequence: having friends drive you around, help you out, take you to rugby practice. I had flashbacks of one of my first solo transfers, crawling into the back of an Expedition.”
And, importantly for our family, Sa was a reminder of why we loved rugby in the first place. Odie and I met through rugby, but our initial passion and drive for the sport had been tempered by politics, travel and routine over the years. Seeing this new athlete out there and driving him to Phoenix for his first tournament reminded us of why we had become involved in the first place and why we had sacrificed so much. It was one of the most enjoyable tournaments we had been to in years.
Examples and Achievement
You can only gain certain perspectives from people who have been in a similar situation. There’s comfort in knowing you’re not alone, and that what is a weakness in one person is a strength in another.
Sa considers the impact sports had on his self-image as a game-changer: “People who knew me [from before] were typically like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry you can’t _____ or _____ anymore; that sucks,’ and they can’t get over who I used to be. When I first came out to rugby, it was, ‘Wow, you’re tall and have really long arms; you’re going to have a great push stroke.’ Suddenly, I went from feeling sorry for myself to seeing my strengths that still prevailed after the accident.”
Seeing positive examples of people with disabilities is a huge bonus. When Odie was first injured 11 years ago, he got a visit from Andy Cohn and Scott Hogsett. Here were two guys, both with less function than he had, playing competitive sports and traveling around the world. And then later there was Odie, playing with Cohn and Hogsett on Team USA.
Sa takes inspiration from that: “Psychologically, it suppresses a lot of anxiety for a fresh injury to see someone with such a fulfilling life after years in a chair.”
You’re able to see the potential in your life, rather than focus on what is gone. You can see this when someone is first exposed to people with disabilities. They see them living completely independently; driving up in their own vehicles; unloading their own gear; interacting with their wives, their husbands, their children. You can watch all the motivational videos you want in rehab, but none of them are likely to have the impact of one average day spent in the company of someone who is living the life you aspire to have.
What Not to Do
Sa stayed in San Diego for four months before going back to Michigan to finish school. Initially, he considered staying in San Diego and putting off his degree. Odie was adamantly opposed to this idea, having left several years earlier three semesters shy of graduation. He insisted Sa go back to college, using himself as an example of what not to do.
And so, less than one year after his accident, Sa was back in Michigan, living in the dorms with all the perks of being a college senior. He and Odie continued to speak almost daily and Skyped frequently, talking about the hilly campus, trying to go to parties in inaccessible buildings and his budding relationship with a classmate. Sa finished his one remaining semester, getting his BA in creative writing with a minor in jazz studies before moving to San Diego after graduation in December 2012.
Sa has come far over the last 20 months. When he came to that first practice in San Diego, he was in the “cadillac,” a giant yellow chair with push handles and wheelie bars that made him look like a bumblebee. Thanks to Mike Box and coach Troy McGuirk, Sa went back to Michigan last spring with a customized chair, slimmed down to his size and built to work in Midwestern snow and on uneven cobblestones.
Thanks to Project N.Ex.T., Sa is also getting his own rugby chair. He has begun driving lessons and is getting his old Impala fitted with hand controls. He’s figured out the best way to tape a Wiimote to his hand to consistently beat me at Wii Tennis. Importantly, he’s started drawing again, using a splint he designed to hold the pen so his hand won’t fatigue too quickly.
As much as I’d like to take the credit (OK, Jeff can have some, too) for the progress Sa has made, his college roommate Nicholas Leonard has another explanation: “James has an ‘epic gene’ in his system. When something sparks his interests, it triggers the ‘epic gene’ and something happens in him to make it happen. I know this sounds superhuman, but that is the best way I can explain his characteristics — superhuman. I feel that the overwhelming support of friends helped James in the initial struggles until his ‘epic gene’ kicked in.”
Sa is now basking in the Southern California sun while bulking up his writing portfolio for grad school. He is still pursuing a career as a creative writing professor, though his empowering experiences in adaptive sports have made him curious about disability advocacy as well. Leonard sees him continuing his writing, envisioning him as “essentially a more muscular Professor Xavier (from Marvel Comics fame).”
Sa and Odie train together twice a week outside of practice, lifting weights and running drills. All of his insistence on the importance of education for Sa has inspired Odie to go back to college this fall, finally finishing his bachelor’s with an eye on a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling. They feed off each other.
“In some sense I push myself in training to teach him,” says Odie. “I can’t slack off even when I don’t feel like pushing because I have this accountability. He’s driven. There are a lot of guys who say they want ‘it,’ whatever ‘it’ is. But at the end of the day, they don’t truly work for it. You can see he wants it.”
Their relationship, built through peer mentoring, has given them both a new drive and a fresh perspective.