Lisa Coryell has heard countless times that there’s nothing that can be done to cure her illness, but she’s here to live her best life
By Courtney Cooper
Lia Coryell competes in the slalom obstacle course at the 37th NVWG in Cincinnati, Ohio in July 2017. (Photo by Courtney Cooper)
Lisa “Lia” Coryell attended her first National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) in 2017. Her experience was better than she could’ve hoped for, but she hit some major bumps in the road. While some may have quit, Coryell is not one to give up a fight, and she will be competing in her second NVWG next week.
Despite having an illness that has only gotten worse over time, Coryell is doing everything she can to live her best life. She was struggling, both mentally and physically, as her illness continued to make her body weaker until she started adaptive sports and became an athlete. Events such as the NVWG and shooting archery changed her perspective on her life and her illness.
Not long after her military career kicked off, Coryell was diagnosed with a progressive and incurable illness. Growing up, she shuffled through the foster care system and had a tough life, which is where she began dreaming of something better. The military was Coryell’s way of making a life for herself that was better than how she grew up, but unfortunately her military career came to a sudden hault shortly after she joined.
Coryell joined the Army young. At age 17, she enlisted and became a motor transport operator. After two short years, Coryell injured her knee and had to have surgery. Her surgery was successful, but she got very ill and doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
“They thought I had meningitis or inflammation of the brain, known as encephalitis,” she says. “The function in the leg I had surgery on never came back, but they couldn’t figure out why.”
Coryell was sent home on medical retirement at age 19. Seven months after being home, she became very ill again, which led doctors to run further tests, such as MRIs and spinal taps. It was soon discovered that Coryell had relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis.
“It devastated me at first, but I had relapsed early on, so I just built an active lifestyle,” she says. “I would have relapses where I’d get really sick, usually lose my vision or lose function on one side, but I still raised two kids, had a lot of jobs and was very active in my community.”
It wasn’t until much later that Coryell was diagnosed with secondary-progressive multiple sclerosis (SPMS), which means symptoms worsen more steadily over time with or without the occurrence of relapses and remissions. Coryell used a walker and a motorized scooter to get around until her body couldn’t handle it. She started using a wheelchair in 2014 after her SPMS diagnosis, and she wishes she’d gone with that route sooner.
Lia Coryell, middle right, greet kids during “kids day” at the 37th NVWG in Cincinnati, Ohio in July 2017. (Photo by Courtney Cooper)
“I think a lot of people that have MS (multiple sclerosis) are really resistant to going into a wheelchair, but I wish I would’ve done it sooner. I actually lost weight in the chair because I could move farther than I could with a walker or sitting in a scooter,” she says. “People say it’s stigmatizing, but it’s not. It’s freeing.”
In 2015 at age 50, Coryell started shooting archery, which soon became a passion of hers. At her first adaptive sports event, she was referred to as an athlete, which changed the way she saw herself and her illness.
“I went into my first adaptive sports program thinking I was a patient with an incurable, progressive illness,” Coryell says. “But they referred to us as athletes. Everyone there was an athlete and that simple, semantic word was a huge change for me. You are not broken, we are all adaptive athletes.”
One year after she started competing in archery, Coryell made Team USA for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, despite her closest friends and family telling her she couldn’t do it.
“When I told people that I was retired from my job and that I’m going to train and I’m going to make the Paralympic team, family and friends both told me I wasn’t going to make it, that I didn’t even know how to shoot a bow,” she says. “That really motivated me.”
Making Team USA was monumental for Coryell because she was able to represent her country again, this time with a different uniform.
“The first time I put a Team USA jersey on with my name on the back and USA on the front – now that was powerful,” she says.
Since she started archery, Coryell has branched out and tried multiple sports. Last year at her first NVWG, Coryell tried new sports such as the obstacle course known as slalom and table tennis. She trained for months before the NVWG, but something happened after her slalom run that no amount of training could’ve prepare her for – she had a massive seizure.
“That was really scary,” she says. “It was a heat-induced seizure and I actually went into autonomic dysreflexia because I was overheated and overstimulated. They took my lactic acid an hour after the seizure and it was 4.7, which means I was out of oxygen for a little bit there. This year, we have a new game plan.”
Coryell will compete in her second NVWG this year and plans to compete in the slalom race again, but this time with a cooling vest to control her temperature.
“I am doing slalom again this year, and I am going to own it. I can’t just walk away from it and let it win,” Coryell says. “I want to conquer it, and for me it isn’t about the fastest time. It’s about finishing it.”
This has been a hard year for Coryell, both physically and mentally. She’s had a major physical decline and lost function in her hands. About six weeks ago, Coryell went to her doctor looking for new medication and they told her that it was too late and there was nothing that could be done, which devastated her to a point where she almost gave up.
“I got very depressed really quick, and I thought, ‘Why even try when they’ve already given up?’” she says.
Then, one of Coryell’s friends gave her an uplifting speech that snapped her out of her depression and back into a stronger mindset.
“Someone reached out to me and said, ‘You know, people don’t like you because you’re an athlete. We all want to be around you because you’re a great person, you never give up and you keep trying. People are still going to want to be your friend and look to you for leadership,’ and that was really cool to hear,” she says. “It’s never too late. So physically, I’ve had a pretty bad decline, but mentally I’m stronger than I’ve ever been.”
Since her loss of hand function, Coryell has had to find other ways to adapt her sports. For table tennis, she has to tape the paddle to her hand since she’s unable to grip. When it comes to archery, she and her coach discovered that taping her feet to the chair helps keep her head steadier. They also added extra support to the bow itself, so her thumb has support and she’s able to hold up the bow.
In addition to slalom, archery and table tennis, Coryell will compete in her newest sport, swimming, at the NVWG. After many months of training and overcoming her fear of getting stuck on her stomach, Coryell learned how to swim properly with her mobility limitations.
“I developed a fear since I started using the wheelchair,” she says. “My fear is not being able to turn over while I’m swimming. Rolling over when I had all of my abilities was no problem, but now I was getting stuck on my stomach and couldn’t roll over to give myself a break. Now, it’s just a small fear, and I may not be the fastest one in the pool, but I’ll get it done.”
As a mother of two children, Coryell struggled when she started playing adaptive sports. She felt that she would take away too much time from her kids to focus on herself, which led to feeling a considerable amount of guilt.
“When my kids were younger, I felt very selfish taking time for myself and doing something that didn’t involve my kids. The guilt of knowing that I’m not going to be around forever made it hard, but now I believe my kids are stronger for it,” she says.
When it comes to her progressive and incurable illness, Coryell is fully aware of what is to come and is not in denial. Yet, she doesn’t believe that it’s too late. She will continue to be a mentor, an athlete and a mother and live life her way.
“You know, you have your birthdate, then the dash, then the end date. Maybe it’s not about what that end date is, but what you do in the dash,” she says.