PN Paralympian: Lia Coryell

From Patient to Paralympian: Army Veteran Lia Coryell Reflects on Journey to Rio

By Brittany Ballenstedt

To see the impossible done, just tell Army veteran Lia Coryell it can’t be. She’ll prove you wrong.

On Sept. 7, 2016, Coryell will roll into the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but simply rolling her wheelchair into the archery competition at the 2016 Games will mean she has already accomplished her goal: qualifying for the U.S. team in the W1 class (archers with disabilities that affect their upper and lower body) – a feat no other American woman has accomplished to date.

“No female from the U.S. has ever qualified for the Paralympics in the W1 category, but I knew it could be done,” she says. “I knew it wouldn’t be easy, and I wouldn’t have done it without the support of others.”

For Coryell, the road to the Paralympics has been anything but smooth. The Army Private enlisted in 1983, but just six months into her service as a military truck driver, she broke her leg. Surgery followed, but Coryell went on to discover she would never recover the nerves in her foot. Doctors initially blamed the anesthesia, but four years later, imaging tests revealed nerve damage stemming from Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

“I swear I’m the world’s oldest Private,” says Coryell, who medically retired from the Army in 1984. “I felt like a loser, and I thought my life was over. Then, I went to the Summer Sports Clinic in San Diego, where they referred to me as an athlete, not a patient. It seems like a simple semantic change, but it was huge in my brain.”

Coryell pursued a degree in recreation therapy and went on to work as a recreational therapist for several years. But as she aged, MS relapses came closer and closer together, and at age 45, following another surgery on her knee, she was thrust into living the rest of her life from a wheelchair. Her MS had worsened to a progressive state, and Coryell was ready to give up.

Yet it was a group of student veterans that Coryell credits not only for saving her life, but giving her the courage to do whatever it took to become a Paralympian. In 2012, while pursuing a graduate degree in education and library science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Coryell was encouraged to head up the student veterans association.

“I thought, ‘I’m in my 40s and not a combat veteran, so what business do I have leading the student veterans?” Coryell said. “But once I learned that we had 1,400 veterans on campus and that their graduation rate was under 10 percent, I knew I had a job to do.”

Coryell went on to advocate for the creation of a veterans resource center, where her fellow veterans could come to support one another and discuss the challenges of transitioning from military to civilian and college life. It was there that she encountered veterans with significant physical and emotional injuries, who, in spite of their circumstances, wouldn’t give up.

“I kept asking those veterans why they kept coming back when it was so hard for them,” Coryell says. “And the most common answer was that a fellow soldier in their unit died and didn’t have that opportunity. And I thought, ‘how could I give any less?’”

It was then that Coryell moved from fear to faith – in herself. She attended a sports clinic in archery, where she met Paralympic coach Randy Smith. She was instantly smitten with the sport, and, after meeting fellow adaptive archer and Air Force veteran Samantha Tucker, she decided to go all in on a dream.

“I determined that 2016 would be my year; my MS was progressive, and 2020 would be out of question,” Coryell says. “Sam and I withdrew from school and moved to Colorado Springs to train full-time. There was no way I could have trained on my own, so Sam was not only a friend, she was my caregiver the entire time.”

Within seven months, Coryell and Tucker had qualified for the national team, world team, Pan-American team and later the Paralympic team. “It was that military sisterhood bond,” she says. “It was the courage to adapt and overcome, and that strength is what pushed us through.”

Coryell will compete on the Paralympic stage against the world’s leading archers in the W1 category, the goal, of course, to bring home a gold medal for Team USA.

That goal will carry her for the days to come, through the Paralympics’ close on Sept. 18. But beyond that, goals will shift back to her responsibilities at home – to both her natural family and the student veterans on campus she calls brothers and sisters. As a passionate researcher, Coryell plans to devote the rest of her life to discovering solutions for veterans transitioning from the military to college education.

“My first project was titled, ‘From Combat to the Classroom,” she says. “The crash from combat doesn’t come right away; it often comes six months into a veterans’ education. It’s all interconnected, and it’s our responsibility as veterans and brothers and sisters of each other to start addressing these issues.”

For Coryell, much of that transition and belief in the purpose she has for her life has been revealed through adaptive sports. Out of the eight archers on Team USA, four are veterans, and that alone is proof that hard work has much to do with military service, she says.

“Adaptive sports save lives, especially in our military culture,” Coryell says. “When people are injured, sick or ill, they lose a part of their identity, and it’s hard to adapt to a new everyday. Adaptive sports helped me get back on the track being part of a culture that was like a brotherhood or sisterhood in the military.”

Paralyzed Veterans of America congratulates Coryell and all veterans and people with disabilities competing at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sept. 7-18.
Lia Coryell

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