When Rachelle Friedman Chapman had had enough of the limo, the clubs and the scene at her Virginia Beach bachelorette party, her posse headed to a friend’s house for a late night swim. Rachelle hesitated going in the pool because it was chilly, even though she was a lifeguard. So a friend playfully pushed her in. Rachelle didn’t come back up.
Rachelle had broken her neck when she hit the bottom and is paralyzed from the chest down, technically a quadriplegic. That was in 2010. You may have seen her on TV, read about her as “The Paralyzed Bride” in many news reports, or in her memoir, The Promise.
In addition to her husband and three-year old daughter, Rachelle has a new passion—strength training. “There’s a lot that defined me as a 24-year old, I taught aerobics classes, drove myself around. I want to get back as much of myself as possible and strength training is helping me do that,” Rachelle told StrongPath. “I want to get back to who I was.”
Over the years her arms got more function back, and when she started being able to transfer herself into bed, or push herself up ramps, she realized that getting a little muscle back was making her life so much easier. So she thought, imagine how much easier it would be if she could make my arms much, much stronger. That’s exactly what she’s doing, and it’s paying off.
Rachelle Friedman Chapman Hits the Gym
She started strength training at the gym a couple of years ago, which wasn’t easy, especially because her husband has to place her on the machines, and she has no ability to grip. She can’t hold a bar to do a pulldown, for example. She has to wear special adaptive gloves, made by a company called Active Hands, that in essence, are wrapped around her wrists and connect her hands to a bar or weight so it’s as if she’s gripping. With a baby, they had to find a gym with built-in day care, which they did. She uses the cable machines and free weights, she and her husband pass a medicine ball between them, and they box. She even makes a cardio routine out of wheeling in between the rows of cardio machines.
The result? “It’s simple things, like ramps. I was never able to get up the ramp, and if I did my muscles were burning. Now I can make it all the way up a ramp or a steep hill a heck of a lot better than I used to. Or a long push across the parking lot or mall, I can do that on my own now,” she said.
Same goes for transferring in and out of bed. “I couldn’t lift myself out of a chair, I couldn’t boost and throw myself on the bed, I would have to slide on a slide board. I still have to use that slide board, but with only a bit of boosting. The strength helps me so much, transferring is a huge step toward independence,” she said.
The Paralyzed Bride Works Towards Independence
Independence is a goal she is getting closer to because of her newfound strength. “Independence makes you who you are,” said Rachelle. “Constantly having to ask someone for everything doesn’t feel good,” she said. “Now being able to drive and go places by myself makes me feel a heck of a lot better about myself. Driving opens up a whole world of independence, and you don’t realize it till it’s gone.”
There are other benefits, too. Her heart health as improved. “One of the main killers for people in my situation is heart disease,” she said.
“We don’t get a lot of cardio, I’m not pushing my chair for an hour straight. Plus my heart is working a lot harder to pump blood because of poor circulation.” Now, she’s taking care of that at the gym.
She’s also a lot happier. Independence and feeling strong has helped her want to get up and get out more often—to be a part of the world.
Rachelle said she feels much better. “I can be more active with my daughter now than if I had had her four years ago, before I got the strength. The stronger I get, the more I can do with her and be independent with her.”
A Simple Goal
Rachelle has more goals based on her improved strength. “My goal is to make things a lot easier so I can do more, and more often without getting tired,” she says. Like going for a drive with her daughter, who is learning how to buckle herself into her car seat since Rachelle can’t use her own fingers. Or getting out of bed and getting dressed herself. “I want to get past baggy t-shirts and sweat pants. I want to put myself together.”
Her strength training is also giving her motivation to do more. “I don’t know what I’m capable of yet, I’ve never gone hard at the gym like I am now, I’m wondering what I can do.” Oh, and she wants to be taken seriously on her rugby team. Yes, rugby. She is the only woman on her eight-person wheelchair rugby team.
Rachelle Gets a Strong Attitude
Part of Rachelle’s positive attitude is her theory of relativity. “A lot of people can’t imagine being like me, but everything is relative. Some people out there have much less function than I do. Christopher Reeve had no function in his arms at all, he had to push a chair with his mouth. I’m so grateful I have my arms. I want to stay as healthy and as strong as possible.”
And to those of us who can use our bodies fully, her advice is also to be grateful. “I hope people can look at their abilities and say to themselves, ‘I can run, I can dance, I can be the best version of myself.’” Amen to that.