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San Diego Paraplegic Athlete Fighting To Walk Again

Video by Katie Schoolov

Therese Riedel was a promising athlete, a likely player for the 2012 U.S. Olympic women's basketball team. But in 2008, she went swimming in the ocean with her college team and snapped her neck. She hasn't walked since. Now a paraplegic, she's learning martial arts from her wheelchair. KPBS video journalist Katie Schoolov captured Riedel's story, in her own words.

Therese Riedel was a promising college athlete, but was paralyzed in an accident six years ago. Now she's learning martial arts from her wheelchair — which also gives her a unique perspective on San Diego.

San Diego native Therese Riedel was a promising athlete, aspiring to play for the 2012 U.S. Olympic women's basketball team.

This story was filmed in one day on April 26, 2014, for "One Day In San Diego." The 24-hour event invited professional and amateur filmmakers across the county to film a slice of San Diego life on one day.

In 2008, she had started to play college basketball for Vanguard University. On Sept. 20 of that year, Riedel went with her teammates to Corona Del Mar State Beach on a team building trip that changed her life forever.

While running and swimming at the beach, she dove beneath a wave and slammed headfirst into a sandbar.

“I knew immediately I was paralyzed. I kinda just felt like my whole body had melted," she said. "I didn’t know my neck was broken but I knew I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t move."

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Therese Riedel at a Jing Shen Kuoshu studio in San Diego on April 26, 2014. Riedel is a San Diego native who was a likely candidate for the U.S. women's basketball team until she was paralyzed in a swimming accident in 2008.

Riedel had broken the C5 vertebrae in her neck. She hasn't walked since. And until recently, she couldn't move anything below her neck.

After more than three months in the hospital and years of physical therapy, the 24-year-old now is training on speed bags and working to regain her grip strength with stick fighting. She's been working out with martial science and functional fitness trainer Greg Fraser for four years, practicing Jing Shen Kuoshu martial arts in order to regain mobility and power in her limbs.

“We sort of classify it as adaptive martial arts and wheelchair self-defense, but we’re not just doing self-defense. We use the martial arts as a sort of bilateral tool for rehab therapy," Fraser said. "If I’ve got somebody whose having to sit there and gather a towel in standard physical therapy, or do these sort of things they typically do, you don’t get the same effect as if I put my face in and say ‘What? You can’t hit me?!’”

Now, almost six years after her accident, Riedel has regained full arm mobility, and can grip sticks with enough power to give Fraser a decent fight.

“Her mobility has gotten much better. Her skills are just phenomenal," he said. "We do demonstrations; it’s hilarious because she actually can throw me around when we’re doing the demonstrations now."

Riedel now helps teach self defense to others in wheelchairs. She hopes the strength it gives her could help her one day walk again.

“It’s so fast-paced and there’s so much going on that you’re thinking about the movements more than the pain your body is in,” she said. “I’m going to get as strong as I can and work as hard as I can. My hope for the future is that I walk. I mean the doctors say no, but I figure God can do anything.”

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Therese Riedel (left) spars with trainer Greg Fraser during martial arts practice, April 26, 2014.

Riedel grew up in La Mesa and went to Grossmont High School. "Every time I say I’m from San Diego, people’s faces lighten up just because they wish they were from San Diego too.

“The first thing I could do if I could walk is surf, definitely go the beaches again," she said. "I think San Diego should make the trolley go to the beach. It’d be really simple for someone, able-bodied or disabled, to hop on the trolley and be in the most beautiful place in America.”

But, she added, San Diego isn't always the easiest for people in wheelchairs to navigate.

"There are so many hills in San Diego," Riedel said. "There are so many stairs everywhere; it's not level. And I would like to encourage them to continue to adapt the city to be accessible to all people of different abilities."

Now, Riedel hopes to serve as a role model for others who face similar challenges. She helps Fraser teach monthly classes on adaptive martial arts and wheelchair self-defense at the Deni & Jeff Jacobs Challenged Athletes Center.

"This is what God wants me to do, and I'm willing to do whatever He wants me to do," Riedel said. She hopes to pass on the philosophy that has helped her get back her strength: "Faith in God and exercise are the best medicine."

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