Rachelle Friedman's unbreakable spirit
This story has been corrected. Read below
It should have been one of the happiest nights of Rachelle Friedman's life. On May 23, 2010, just four weeks shy of her wedding, Friedman, 25, was in the midst of her bachelorette party. After a night on the town, the girls decided to end the evening with a late-night swim at a friend's house.
In an innocent act of horseplay, Friedman was pushed into the shallow end of the pool by one of her bridesmaids.
"I went in awkwardly and hit my head," Friedman said. "I stopped moving instantly."
Still in the water, she yelled to the group to call 911. Her friends dove in and carried Friedman out of the pool while waiting on an ambulance.
Friedman was rushed to the hospital, where emergency surgery was performed to remove her C6 vertebrae, which had broken in her fall. Later that evening, within hours of her arrival at the hospital, Friedman learned she had been paralyzed from the chest down and would be a quadriplegic for life.
Her diagnosis was the beginning of a long road. She spent 10 days in the ICU before enduring two and a half months of rehab at a hospital in Greenville, N.C.
While her body may have been battered and bruised from the accident, her spirit was untouched.
"Anger was never an emotion I had," she said. "I was already worried about my family and friends."
Her fiancé, Chris Chapman, 29, stayed by her side during the ordeal.
"It never occurred to me to leave her," said Chapman, who, like Friedman, grew up in Virginia Beach, although they didn't meet until college. "It was all about how we were going to get through it."
The wedding had to be postponed, but the two finally exchanged "I dos" July 22, 2011, and have begun their life together in Knightdale,N.C., just outside of Raleigh. Chapman teaches seventh grade science at Southern Nash Middle School in Spring Hope, N.C., while Friedman fills her days with speaking engagements.
But not everything has returned to normal.
In high school, Friedman played on the varsity tennis team and was also a member of the school's cheerleading squad. Her love of sports continued in college at East Carolina University, where she played tennis recreationally and frequented the gym. And, right before her accident, she taught line dancing and aerobics at a senior center in her spare time.
Learning she would be wheelchair-bound for life was a tough blow for the self-proclaimed tomboy. But, she wasn't going to let a wheelchair curtail her love of sports.
That's when Friedman discovered the Raleigh Sidewinders, one of two wheelchair rugby teams in North Carolina. The sport -- commonly known as quad rugby -- is the focus of the documentary "Murderball." It is a mix of basketball, soccer and hockey, with only the tackling resembling rugby. The contact sport is comprised of co-ed teams and is played by athletes who have limitations in three or four limbs. Each team has four players on the court at a time, who have 40 seconds to score a goal by using their custom rugby wheelchairs to pass, dribble and carry a volleyball the length of a basketball court.
"I went to my first practice 13 weeks after I was hurt, just to watch," Friedman said. "The second my neck brace was off, I joined in right away."
Friedman's strength has improved tremendously since becoming a part of the team last August, said Ron Frederick, a co-captain of the Sidewinders. When Friedman first joined, she was limited in what she could do on her own. She needed a family member to push her wheelchair at all times. Since becoming a member of the team, Friedman has gained enough strength to be able to do most of the pushing herself.
Quad rugby "was strength training I would not have otherwise had," she said.
And while rugby has benefitted Friedman, her addition to the team has been huge for her 13 teammates.
"Rachelle is a positive addition to the team," Frederick said. "She has wanted to learn and improve with every practice and game. She is committed to the sport and the team."
Each player is given a point value based on the level of his or her injury. The highest-functioning players receive a 3.5 and the scale goes all the way down to 0.5, the number assigned to the lowest-functioning players. The combination of all four players on the court for each team must equal of eight points.
Prior to Friedman joining the team, Frederick, who is a 3.5, was sidelined for most games because there was no combination of him and three other players to equal eight. But Friedman was graded at 0.5 and that allowed Frederick to get back on the court.
Still, the team doesn't define itself by numbers or limitations. The players are athletes who have a drive to compete at the highest level.
"We consider ourselves athletes, so that's just part of the sport," Frederick said. "Rugby gives competition to those who are wheelchair bound, a reason to exercise and self-worth. Some people are not in a good place when they come out of the hospital, and rugby helps them mentally as much as it does physically. It gives them something to keep them occupied. They're not sitting at home saying 'woe is me.'"
While no body contact is allowed, overturning a competitor by crashing into his or her wheelchair is part of the game. It's not unusual for players to injure their shoulders, bump their heads, break a finger or hand or skin a knee, Frederick explained.
There are other hazards as well. Like flat tires: It's typical for a high-point player to have an average of four flat tires during the course of a tournament, Frederick added. Each new tire typically costs around $20.
And those are just the hazards that occur on the court. Getting to the monthly tournaments is a whole different -- and expensive -- challenge.
Because the players must bring their wheelchairs with them, fewer people can fit into a car, upping the price of gas for each passenger. Also, most handicapped hotel rooms come equipped with one large bed, Frederick explained. So if the team members want their own beds, they typically have to pay for their own room. The team's total cost averages between $10,000-$15,000 for a single season; each player contributes $500 a year in dues.
But for Friedman, the only female on the Sidewinders, the benefits -- such as meeting other people who have suffered similar injuries -- far outweigh the costs of playing the sport.
"Rugby has been a huge deal," she said. "I always have questions for people -- like what do you do when this happens? It's a whole new world."
"No doctor or physical therapist can tell you everything you need to know when you're injured," Frederick said. "You have to talk to someone else who has had a similar injury. But most people will tell you they've done more in their wheelchairs than they ever did out of them. It drives people to do more with less."
Rugby has allowed Friedman to grow stronger mentally and physically, but she still has a long way to go.
"We're still struggling financially with the medical bills," she said. "The first year for a quad on average is $450,000. I had insurance but that doesn't even begin to cover it. There are always going to be doctor visits and medications."
And those financial strains have halted Friedman's recovery.
"I want to raise money for rehab," she said. "I haven't had therapy in over six months because of the financial implications."
Walking With Anthony, a non-profit which helps spinal cord injury victims, will be funding Friedman's three weeks of rehab at Project Walk in Carlsbad, Calif. But to gain the strength she needs, Friedman believes she will require three months at the facility, which would cost her an estimated $15,000-$20,000.
Friedman's speaking engagements are her source of income. She aspires to hold a full-time job, but that plan is currently on-hold because she lacks physical independence. To gain independence, she needs the rehab, but the physical strength from rugby is helping bridge the gap.
"She's got to be able to build enough strength to push her wheelchair around town," Chapman said.
But until Friedman is able to get back into rehab, she's getting by each day with the power of love -- love for her new husband, love of sports and the love of being a competitor.
"I don't play for a pat on the back; I play to win," Friedman said. "I've gained a way to stay strong, meet friends and stay true to who I am -- a competitive athlete."
To assist Rachelle with her rehabilitation and medical costs, visit www.rachellefriedman.com.
A Sept. 12 story on ESPNW.com included the wrong group that was funding Rachelle Friedman's time at a rehab facility. Walking With Anthony, a non-profit which helps spinal cord injury victims, is the group paying for the time, which costs an estimated $15,000-$20,000.