Steamboat resident maintains zeal for life after paralysis
February 18, 2012
Steamboat Springs — Things go quiet, and there is a sense of unease.
But Rebecca Shephard doesn't pause or hesitate. She's been here before, explaining a life-changing event to someone who doesn't know and is uneasy about asking.
Shephard, however, does so with grace.
She explains how she ended up paralyzed from the waist down during a ski accident more than 10 years ago. The words, each filled with conviction and purpose, come out easy.
It's not an event Shephard will forget. How could she? Not being able to walk has shaped her physically and emotionally.
"I remember it pretty good," she said. "It was a Saturday. I had driven over because my parents had a cabin in the Sierras. It was Easter weekend. I left Reno, drove over to the cabin and got up on Saturday morning and went up to ski."
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Shephard began swimming almost as soon as she could splash in her parents' pool. Growing up in Sunnyvale and Saratoga, Calif. — about 45 minutes south of San Francisco — made it a natural fit.
By age 5, she was swimming in summer leagues. At age 9, she was swimming year-round, and she eventually earned a Division I swimming scholarship to the University of Nevada, Reno.
She was a natural athlete. Skiing wasn't her first sport, but she was good enough to make several Junior Olympic teams, including in 1996, when she met best friend Alli Williams.
"She was a weekend skier for fun," Williams said. "We were paired in a room together, and we were instantly best friends. It was like we'd known each other for years. Her and I instantly connected."
Shephard had finished her swimming career and was on her way to her parents' cabin and skiing at Bear Valley Mountain on April 14, 2001.
It was a festive atmosphere with pond-skimming competitions, bands playing and a big-air competition.
Shephard had friends who had done the big-air competition before. This was at the time when pipe skiing and big air were starting to enter into popular culture.
Shephard looked at the jump and thought to herself, "I can do this."
She strapped on her skis, went off and came down on a flat landing. She landed in the back seat, one of her skis popped off and people rushed over. She had burst the T12 vertebrae in her back, its fragments ripping into the spinal cord.
"I grew up skiing where I got hurt," Shephard said. "The main guy on call was a family friend. I remember saying, 'Take my boots off. Take my ski boots off,' but they were already off.
"I felt like a balloon ready to pop. I wasn't thinking at the time that I was going to be paralyzed. I thought I just broke both my legs. I was 22 years old."
She was airlifted to Sutter General Hospital in Sacramento, where the arduous recovery process began.
Recovering what was lost
Shephard had to endure a 10-hour surgery. She spent two weeks in the hospital. She doesn't remember much. She knew her injury was serious and can recall her father telling the staff not to tell her what had happened.
Her parents and Williams constantly were at her side.
"It was one of the worst calls I've ever gotten," said Williams, who missed her college finals to be with Shephard. "I was afraid. I cried and cried. Sitting on the couch next to my dad, I couldn't believe what I heard. I couldn't understand it."
Two weeks after the initial injury, Shephard was transferred to a rehab center. She was miserable from the start. She spent six weeks in the rehab center in Vallejo, Calif., and then moved in with her parents.
It was an extremely dark point for Shephard. She had gone from a Division I athlete to a wheelchair in a matter of moments.
"I was a mess. I was a wreck," she said. "I never wanted to end my life, but I knew it was going to be different. So much of my life was athletics and using your body and doing stuff. I was very fearful. How was I going to do this? I went through, 'Why me?' I was sad, scared and angry. All those grieving emotions you go through. I didn't lose my life, but I lost a big part of my life."
Soon, she found Project Walk in San Diego. She moved out of her parents' house and in with a college swim teammate.
"I think her attitude and who she was helped her though it," said Mariana Chanfreau, Shephard's roommate when she moved to San Diego. "I don't think any of us could have done that. That's just her mentality. There isn't one particular thing I can think of that made her come out of her funk. It's just her."
Finally, in 2003, a friend encouraged her to go to Aspen to learn to sit-ski.
At first, she was hesitant. Then on a whim, she headed to Challenge Aspen, a nonprofit that provides recreational opportunities for people with disabilities. There, she met Amanda Boxtel and relearned to ski.
It was a large step in her recovery and another way to move on from the devastating injury she suffered years before.
"Skiing again was a huge accomplishment for Rebecca," said Boxtel, who sustained a spinal injury in 1992 from skiing. "Speaking from my own experience, I know that when I learned to ski again, it was almost as if I believed that I was invincible, that I could do anything if I put my mind to it, and adopted a spirit of creativity and adventure. I knew Rebecca was made of the same character and mindset. Skiing was undoubtedly the catalyst that helped create the beautiful woman she is today."
Shephard moved to Steamboat in summer 2006. She planned to spend one winter here.
This past year, she bought a condo.
Here, she said, she has a good network of friends, a good job and a place she loves.
She's realistic about her situation.
"If I could take a magic pill tomorrow and walk, I would," she said. "I'm not one of those people that is like, 'This is so great it happened to me, and I learned these life lessons, blah, blah, blah.' If I could have skipped out on this whole thing, I would have."
But what makes her remarkable is her zest for life.
Shephard skis, waterskis, bikes, swims, kayaks, whitewater rafts and loves to travel.
She has a trip planned to Europe later this year and recently returned from Mexico, where she went cenote diving.
"She takes what she has in stride and doesn't dwell on it," friend Robbie Shine said. "We've lugged her everywhere. We took her all around Mexico."
In the end, the injury changed Shephard's life forever. But the most important thing is being paralyzed hasn't stopped Rebecca Shephard from being Rebecca Shephard.
"I think that if there is one thing I learned through this whole process, it's everyone has good and bad days," she said. "You have to have a lot more good days. And that's a choice you can make. You wake up in the morning, and sure, you can say, 'I feel sick, and it's going to be a (crappy) day.' Or you can wake up and enjoy the day and see where it goes.
"Besides, it's much, much more fun being happy than sad."
To reach Luke Graham, call 970-871-4229 or email lgraham@SteamboatToday.com