Eight grueling surgeries and seemingly endless days on a hospital bed — that’s just part of what Frances Osorio Rivera endured before finally succumbing to the amputation of her left leg in 2011.
She was just 22 at the time, the victim of a car crash in which she had been a passenger.
“When I woke up and my leg was not there anymore … it felt like everything that had been me was gone,” said Rivera, a U.S. Army veteran. “I used to be a positive, high-energy person, and at that point, I felt hopelessness.”
Between the surgeries and getting fitted for a prosthesis, Rivera was bedridden for five straight months, first in a Jacksonville hospital room and then at her aunt’s house.
For her, every day in that hospital felt like weeks. Every week felt like months, and, even after going home, nothing was the same anymore.
“My first four years after the accident were a deep struggle,” she said. “I had to relearn everything.”
Finally, after moving to Miami in July 2015, Rivera heard about Magnus Liljedahl, who runs Team Paradise, a nonprofit, mostly volunteer organization that provides free access to sailboats — along with training and coaching.
Rivera is now part of Team Paradise, and there’s a good chance she could be in Paris in 2024, when the Paralympics adds kiteboarding as one of its sports.
“It is liberating — that’s the simplest way to describe it,” Rivera said when asked how it feels to be on the water. “It’s like meditation. You are connecting with multiple elements — the wind and the water — and you just flow.
“I owe a lot to Team Paradise. It’s given me a more positive outlook on life.”
Liljedahl, who won an Olympic sailing gold medal in 2000, founded Team Paradise five years later, fulfilling his desire to give back to disabled veterans as well as at-risk youth and the special-needs community.
But Team Paradise is not the only organization helping put people with disabilities on the water and in a competitive environment.
Stephanie Smith, a former University of Miami rower, joined the Miami Beach Rowing Club in 2015 as its first full-time adaptive coach.
By 2016, she and the club had trained and helped Helman Roman reach the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
These days, Smith is training as many as 30 adaptive athletes on a weekly basis.
“We offer accessibility to whatever training and equipment they need,” Smith said. “Some are serious athletes, and some just want occasional exercise and may come in only once a month, but we never turn anyone away. We work within their goals.”
Laura Root, a 40-year-old retired Naval officer who worked in the intelligence community, is someone else who loves being on the water.
Before being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy nearly a decade ago, Root’s sailing experience was limited to a few cruises.
But since meeting Liljedahl in 2015, she has a new perspective on the sport, and she grabs every opportunity to “sail anything I can.”
Root sacrifices much in order to quench her thirst for sailing. Her illness has left her with just 30 percent of her former strength, and sailing is a physically demanding sport.
“It tears up my body,” Root said. “Every muscle is affected.”
Meanwhile, Patrick Ward, a former U.S. Navy doctor, has his own story to tell.
Ward, 63, was injured during active duty and withstood an incredible 55 surgeries in a five-year span. He suffered injuries throughout his body, lost his right leg and very nearly his will to live.
“My family was told to make arrangements,” said Ward, referencing the severity of his injuries. “Everything I was and everything I wanted to be were dead. I had nothing left to live for.”
It was then that he found the Miami Beach Rowing Club and met Smith.
“She was very persistent,” Ward said. “I don’t know where I would be if not for her.
“There are lost souls in this world. I know because I was that guy who was lost. It’s impossible to dream when you’re barely holding on.”
These days, Ward carpools 90 minutes from Fort Lauderdale to Miami Beach, arriving at 6 a.m. for rowing practice. He hopes to be in Tokyo next year for the 2020 Paralympic Games.
Ward said he doesn’t like divulging the details of how he lost his right leg. To him, that’s beside the point.
“I don’t want to be known as the guy who got blown up,” he said. “I want to be known as the guy who survived.
“When I get home from rowing practice, I’m exhausted. But people say they’ve never seen me happier or healthier, and that’s the real story.”
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