|04-08-2003, 09:53 AM||#1|
She's an athlete no one can forget
She's an athlete no one can forget
By John Grogan
Some moments in life stay with you till your dying day.
For Katie Samson, a gifted athlete who was never very good at sitting still, that moment came on a snowy slope in Radnor on Jan. 29, 2000.
It was a simple, happy moment, one of the thousands that are meant to blend into the stuff of happy youthful memories. It ended up being the turning point of her young life.
Samson, home from Middlebury College in Vermont, was sledding with friends. Her sled hit a bump, sending her airborne. "It was just one of those fluke accidents," she says matter-of-factly, sitting in her wheelchair on the patio of her Radnor home.
"I kind of landed on my head. As soon as I hit, it broke my neck, and I was immediately paralyzed."
She remembers the rest of her slide down the hill as a silent, painless dream. It was almost like floating.
What came next was less ethereal - the weeks in the hospital followed by months in a rehabilitation center, as she put it, "figuring out how one lives in a wheelchair."
For this energetic downhill skier and star lacrosse goalie who helped Middlebury bag a national championship the year before, it was a raw, shattering transition.
She spent several weeks in despair. Then she decided to get on with life. "I started to rethink everything. I thought, 'This is something I can actually live with.' " The rest of Samson's story is an amazing testament to human resiliency and willpower.
Sitting with her in the sun, the first bees of spring bumbling lazily about us, I am struck by this young woman's profound lack of self-pity. This is her new life as a paraplegic, motionless from the chest down. She's conquering it, one obstacle at a time.
A year after her accident, Samson was back at Middlebury, where she became a coach for her old lacrosse team. She counseled other young paralysis victims. She taught drama. She even took a modern dance class, where she could whirl about and almost forget she was anchored to a steel chair on wheels.
In May, she delivered the commencement address to her classmates, though she would not graduate herself until the next semester. In it, she talked of her battle to accept her new life. "In the end," she told her classmates, "I have so much to be thankful for. I think we all do."
When her turn to graduate with honors came two months ago, she joined her classmates in skiing down a Vermont mountain in cap and gown. To do it, she mastered a special sitting-ski rig. At the bottom, her family and a throng of supporters cheered her.
"It's one of those moments of my life I'll never forget," she says.
And another unforgettable moment: In December 2001, she wheeled the Olympic torch up Broad Street in Philadelphia on its way to Salt Lake City, her ever-present family and friends applauding her, tears streaming down her freckled cheeks.
Each summer since her accident, Samson has joined a rowing team on the Schuylkill, her hands taped to the oars because they no longer can grip.
Now 23 and back home, she is job hunting and preparing for an internship at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She drives a modified van, and is largely independent, though she needs help getting in and out of bed. Did I mention she is writing a youth novel based on Rembrandt's early years?
But what has been occupying her attention lately is the Third Annual Katie Samson Lacrosse Festival, which will take place Saturday at the Haverford School in Haverford. All proceeds will go to fund spinal-cord-injury research and care. (For more information, call 610-688-1606.)
Meanwhile, the irrepressible Samson keeps dreaming and striving - and proving each day that broken bodies do not need to break spirits. Her long-term goal is to earn a doctoral degree so she can teach at a university.
"And I'm still tying to figure out how I can adapt a lacrosse stick so I can catch and throw," she says. Somehow you know she will find a way.
John Grogan writes Monday, Tuesday and Friday. Contact him at 610-313-8132 or firstname.lastname@example.org.