“I’m an odd quad,” says Judy laughing.
She worked hard to laugh like that. When she was 18, a drunk driver ran his stop sign and plowed into Judy’s car. The impact broke her neck.
The accident also caused traumatic brain injury, which Judy now counts as a blessing. “It allowed me to find out about my situation gradually,” she says. “It was three weeks before I was fully aware of what happened. That period allowed my family to deal with their shock so they were ready to help me deal with mine.”
When she eventually grasped the severity of the accident, one of the things Judy grieved most was the thought of a future without sports. “Competition had been a big part of my life. I was an Allstate basketball player before the accident. I was looking forward to playing college ball. There was a huge sense of loss for the first few years after the accident. I wondered if I was ever going to laugh again.”
Judy’s grief manifested in insomnia and nightmares. Eventually though, her inherent resilience and faith returned. “I finally turned to the belief system I relied on before the accident. I was taught that God was always with me—I clung to that faith. I realized there were going to be many more times I’d feel frustrated and hurt—believing in God didn’t mean I wouldn’t have those emotions. But if I could share them with God I could deal with them constructively. That ended my nightmares. I realized things were going to be different, but I wasn’t sure how exactly. But I knew my life still had value and worth even though I had no idea what it was going go look like.”
These days, she loves how life looks.
After the accident, Judy majored in social work and has worked for 20 years in healthcare as a social worker. She’s now the Director of Women’s Ministry at Fargo Hope Lutheran Church. She’s a motivational speaker, a published author, an ambassador for people affected by disability and a volunteer for Wheels for the World, which delivers refurbished wheelchairs around the globe. In fact, just shy of her 50th birthday, Judy recently visited the Middle East where she met Prince Raad Bin Zeid, who heads up Jordan’s Paralympic Committee.
Her list of accomplishments is long, and Judy is fully invested in them all. But one pursuit that has engaged her body and soul is competitive wheelchair racing.
“I got into racing in the early ’90s,” she says with pride and excitement. “I was in Atlanta and Sydney for the 1996 and 2000 Paralympics. I won two gold medals in the Mexico City PanAm Games. I’ve established national records—which I continue to hold today—in the 400, 800, 1500 and 5000 meter events. It’s a thrill to be back in competition.”
That competitive spirit fueled Judy to find other ways to work her body. “A physician from Johns Hopkins heard me speak in St. Louis and wrote to me and said, ‘You’ve gotta get involved with our spinal chord injury program.’ I researched the program and talked to different people about it including a friend who trained there. Eventually I realized I had to go for it.
“My first experience on the RT300 was great! I was already able to bear weight and stand and take steps, but the RT300 gave me access to more equipment that would help strengthen my health and fitness. I didn’t buy the RT300 the first year; I just used it at the hospital. But I noticed I was getting stronger and my walking was improving. And neurologically I was showing improvement. When your system is compromised, every bit of connection you can make is a bonus. So when I realized I was making some gains I decided to buy my own. That was two years ago. Now I use my RT300 three times a week for an hour each session.”
Judy doesn’t tout the RT300 as a miracle. She isn’t suddenly salsa dancing or running marathons. The changes, she says, are subtle—but vital for an athlete.
“After an RT300 session, I have such a feeling of accomplishment! I love to use my body as an athlete. Once an athlete always an athlete! When I use the RT300, I get that great feeling of using my body. It’s a part of my routine that’s important for my health and for my life. I appreciate getting my cardio in each week — I wasn’t getting that before because I didn’t have access to this kind of impact. I can’t see the condition of my heart, but I know this is good for it. I’ve been fortunate to have had good health. But the RT300 has become a basic foundational part of my routine because I know how important it is for me if I’m going to continue to be active and healthy. I need to be getting this therapy into my day. I consider myself a success story because I am living fully and loving life, even from a wheelchair. I have been given a lot.
“When you first begin the journey of spinal cord injury you wonder how on earth life will be good again. Maybe that’s why I’m meant to be involved in this program—to encourage those that are struggling on that journey and don’t know how they can do it. Maybe I can bring them some hope and let them know it can be done.”
For more information on Judy’s story, go to www.judysiegle.com