Playing Through the Pain

Following a devastating injury, former Roadrunners soccer star Courtney Ryan now shines as one of the nation’s top disabled athletes.

By Mike Pearson

Publish Date: January 30, 2014

Ryan

Courtney Ryan's goal is to represent the U.S. at the Paralympic Games
in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Photo: James Wood.

When MSU Denver soccer player Courtney Ryan woke up the morning of Oct. 8, 2010, she had no idea that before day’s end her life would change forever.

She boarded a charter bus with other members of the Roadrunners soccer team for a trip to Mesa State College and a conference game. She recalls feeling a bit off that morning, with a tingling sensation in her legs. As an elite athlete, she simply shrugged it off. Playing through pain and discomfort was part of life.

Later that day, however, the tingling took a tragic turn.

“About 20 minutes into the game I was playing forward and someone passed [the ball] to the defense,” recalls Ryan, now a student at the University of Arizona. “I remember being slide tackled, and as soon as I landed on my back, it felt like someone stabbing me in my back. A blood clot had leaked into my spinal cord and when it burst it caused some of the nerves to detach.”

In the span of a heartbeat, Ryan was paralyzed from the waist down.

“I’m considered an incomplete paraplegic,” says Ryan. “I have no sensation from the belly button down. The doctors say the clot would have eventually burst and that the impact of the fall caused it to happen sooner than later.”

Ryan immediately began rehabilitation at Craig Hospital in Denver, which specializes in spinal injuries. She also continued her studies at MSU Denver for the spring semester before moving home to her native San Diego to work with the Challenged Athletes Foundation’s Project Next. There, her mentor, Erika Davis, introduced Ryan to wheelchair basketball and the next phase of her athletic life.

While playing in a wheelchair basketball tournament, she was spotted by Pete Hughes, head coach of the University of Arizona Wildcats wheelchair basketball team. Impressed by Ryan’s athleticism — and a buzzer-beating shot during the tournament — he offered her a scholarship to Arizona, where in fall 2012 she began studying education with an emphasis on disability studies.

Now considered one of the nation’s top collegiate wheelchair basketball players (she’s one of 16 women named to the 2016 U.S. Paralympic wheelchair basketball team), Ryan says she hadn’t really given the sport much thought before her injury.

“I’ve definitely carried over the lessons and skills from soccer to basketball,” she says. “Soccer gave me a great work ethic and the ability to recognize the importance of my teammates. I had played basketball a bit when I was about 11, but I was awful. I would foul out of every game because I didn’t get the concept of no contact, which there is a lot of in soccer.

“Obviously, being selected to the USA women’s wheelchair basketball team has been an affirming experience in my life,” Ryan adds. “Following my injury, I felt my life as an elite athlete was in the past. Being selected has reminded me that once an athlete, always an athlete.”

Ryan’s determination to triumph over her injury impressed her doctors, coaches and friends alike.

“Courtney is a strong person because any issue that’s thrown at her, like her injury, she doesn’t let stop her,” says Molly Bloom, a Wildcats teammate. “She moves forward in a way that any hardship she deals with she uses it to make her a stronger person.”

Bloom, herself disabled after having a leg amputated at the end of high school, met Ryan when both started at Arizona in 2012. Despite the camaraderie shared by disabled athletes, she says their goal is not shared self-pity, but shared athletic success.

“No one on the team is focused on disability,” Bloom explains. “There are nine of us this year, and we’re all incredibly competitive and dedicated to the sport. The support we get on our team is about athletics, not disability. Four of us qualified for the USA team last year.”

Ryan says her immediate goal is representing the U.S. at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. The team begins training in earnest this year.

In the short term, she hopes to use her experiences to inspire other disabled athletes to make life work for them and not settle for victim status.

“It was a huge transition going from being in the able-bodied majority to being in a minority group,” Ryan notes. “It can be greatly intimidating. When you’re in rehabilitation, everyone else is using wheelchairs to get around so you don’t see yourself as so different. Once you get back into the real world it’s kind of crazy how inaccessible our society is.

“The best advice I got [during rehabilitation] was not to be afraid to try new things. Everything that you try you should give it your all, and don’t let fear of failure stop you. The spirit can take you much farther than the body alone ever could.”

Adrianne Pietz was in her third year as MSU Denver’s women’s soccer coach when Ryan’s injury occurred. She says Ryan’s journey back from the tragedy has inspired the entire community.

“We knew [the injury] was serious when it happened, but we didn’t know how serious,” Pietz recalls. “You never expect that in a game like soccer someone will be paralyzed for the rest of their life. It was a shock.”

“Courtney is a phenomenal athlete,” Pietz adds. “The things she had to deal with [during rehabilitation] impacted our program. Her fight and her will were really an inspiration for everyone around her.”

Ryan credits MSU Denver with helping her become the woman she is today.

“Metro shaped my athleticism a lot and made me realize that I compete because of my desire to be the best, and that I can apply that [philosophy] to my education,” she says. “I enjoyed occupational therapy even at Metro, but I never guessed that I would be doing this.”

And she credits friends and family with helping her channel her competitive spirit when it sometimes might have been easier to give up.

“[My injury] has affected my family, but we’re definitely a strong unit, and we’ve been through a lot. For us it’s another bump in the road we’ll eventually get through,” says Ryan. “Our motto in life is that our biggest stresses are our biggest blessings. There’s a reason for this, and so far I think that reason is for me to represent my family and have my last name on that Team USA jersey.”