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Paraplegic PUC Alum Climbs Kilimanjaro

Larry Pena, March 16, 2010
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When she lost the use of her legs a year after graduation, PUC athlete Erica Davis, class of ’04, wasn’t content to give up her active lifestyle. But she never expected to set a world record—as the first paraplegic woman to reach the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

As a physical education major at PUC, Erica had a passion for sports. She worked in the athletic department, helped coordinate the intramural program, and played every sport she could, from volleyball and basketball to cycling and running to surfing. “College was one of the best times of my life,” she says, largely due to the wealth of athletic opportunities she had at PUC.

“Erica was one of the most talented female athletes ever to go to this school,” says coach Bob Paulson, one of her professors and supervisors in PUC’s health, exercise science and nutrition department. “I don’t know of an athlete that was more well-rounded.”

After graduating with her B.S. and teaching credentials in 2004, she began a six-month contract stint as a P.E. teacher at Hawaiian Mission Academy in Honolulu. While there she began dreaming of — and training for — the world-famous Ironman Triathlon, held annually on the Big Island of Hawaii.

It wasn’t long after she returned home to Lodi, California, that she woke in the night with a terrible pain in her lower back. At first she assumed it was just sore muscles. But over the next few days a tingling began below her waist, and she had less and less control over her legs. On December 30 her doctors found the cause of the problem — a completely unexpected hemorrhage in the base of her spine — and predicted full paralysis below the waist. The final day of 2005 was the last she would be able to walk.

But even in the face of this news, it never occurred to Erica to give up her lifestyle. “I just thought, ‘How am I going to be able to play sports again?’” In those first few weeks of paralysis, she refused to show any discouragement, and didn’t permit visitors any negative talk.

Her physical therapist put her on a regimen of upper-body workouts, including weight training. Within a few months, Erica began making friends with other challenged athletes, and tried out her first hand cycle — a bicycle set up for upper-body propulsion. She began cycling regularly and even racing in the Sacramento area. But as determined as she was to stay involved in sports, she soon discovered that there were many more opportunities for challenged athletes in Los Angeles.

So in 2006 she moved to L.A. and immersed herself in the challenged athlete community in Southern California. She found a thriving group of people in her situation. She took up tennis, softball, basketball, rowing, climbing, even triathlons — anything she could find. She was so active and visible as an athlete that in October of 2009 she was approached by the C.H.E.K Institute, an organization that promotes corrective exercise and high-performance physical conditioning. The Institute offered to train and sponsor her if she agreed to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and appear in a documentary of the journey, raising awareness for other athletes with physical challenges.

Erica dove into her training. For the next few months, four or five days of every week were spent strengthening her core muscles, pushing her wheelchair up steep hills, and practicing on vigorous hiking trails.

“I was always very optimistic — it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be able to make it until about two weeks before the trip,” she says. That moment of doubt came when someone asked her about failure. She became nervous — briefly — and then recommitted to her training regimen to make sure she wouldn’t have to think of failure again.

Finally the journey began in late January. Erica was not alone. Another challenged athlete, a woman whose left leg is amputated below the knee, also joined in the adventure. They were accompanied by the film crew, representatives from the C.H.E.K Institute and several other sponsors, and a team of porters to help along the way. Landing in Tanzania, the group wasted little time in heading straight for the slopes of Kilimanjaro.

For the climb, Erica had a wheelchair specially-designed for rugged use. Loaded with mountain bike tires, two gears, a locking mechanism to prevent unauthorized rolling, and handles and mounts for easy assistance on impassable terrain, the chair helped make the climb possible.

The ascent took six strenuous days. At first the climb was little more than a steep, vigorous hike, but a few days in the terrain became more unmanageable. At several points the porters literally had to carry Erica’s chair over boulders and sharp crevasses. At the upper altitudes the temperature dropped to extreme lows, and the climbers had to huddle together for warmth. Many in the group experienced debilitating altitude sickness.

On the fourth day Erica had an emotional crisis. The group had broken apart, and she was alone with porters who didn’t speak English. Unable to communicate, alone in her mind at that high altitude, she broke down in tears.

But on day six when she reached the summit, she knew that all the trials had been worthwhile. As she watched the sun rise from the roof of Africa, she felt like her hard work had finally paid off. “It was about zero degrees up there, but the feeling you get warms you up,” she says.

Since she returned to the States at the beginning of February she’s faced a slew of interviews to publicize her groundbreaking feat, and it’s taken a while to recover from the sheer effort. “I’m not used to it — I’ve never been much in the public eye,” she says. But with her upcoming documentary Through the Roof scheduled to come out this spring, she may have to make that adjustment as a role model for other athletes facing physical challenges.

Erica plans to return to more conventional sports in the coming months, still dreams of competing in Ironman, and has every intention of someday being able to walk again on her own two legs. They’re lofty goals, but no one doubts that Erica has the potential to reach them. “What she does next will only be determined by where she wants to focus,” says Paulson. “Her determination allows her to do more than you’d expect she’d be able to do.”

“This was never something that came up in my mind,” she says of the adventure on Kilimanjaro. “I had never thought that it was something I could do.” Hopefully with her example in mind, other athletes with physical challenges will have less reason to feel that way themselves.