On Oct. 11, 2014, Rachel Corey celebrated her 33rd birthday at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation. Her friends opted for a Hawaiian theme for the party, because Corey was supposed to be in Kona, Hawaii that month to compete in the renowned Ironman World Championship triathlon.
Instead, Corey was just lucky to be alive.
Corey was struck by a motorist while she was on a training ride. She had broken ribs, a broken clavicle, a broken back and more. (The driver who hit Corey later pleaded guilty to reckless driving.)
The elite athlete would spend years rehabilitating her broken body, but Corey was determined to compete again. And on Aug. 12 of this year, Corey completed her first triathlon since that accident.
Corey’s comeback was a significant milestone in her recovery, and it was one she shared with her physical therapist, Joe Wegley, who works at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation in Boise.
At first Corey was reluctant to enter the August triathlon because she would be using a hand cycle, which is powered by the user’s arms instead of legs. She wondered whether she could complete the triathlon’s 12-mile cycling course over hilly terrain using only her upper body for power.
When she shared her concern with Wegley, he made her a deal. He told her that if she agreed to enter the triathlon he would join her; he would swim and run if she would do the cycling portion of the triathlon (using a hand cycle).
Naming their team the “Misfit Toys,” the duo participated in Emmett’s Most Excellent Triathlon wearing hot pink shirts. The color has special meaning for Corey, who is slight in stature and wore pink when competing in triathlons.
“Wearing pink, looking like an unlikely competitor, and catching racers by surprise had been my prior racing strategy,” she said.
The Emmett competition was a different experience for Corey, who was known as a fierce competitor in the triathlon community.
“It wasn’t about catching that person in front of me, setting a PR, winning a race, or collecting hardware; it was about challenging myself to a new activity, surrounding myself with fellow competitors again, feeling the wind on my face, and absorbing the positive energy of a race environment,” she explained.
During the award ceremony, the Misfit Toys received the event’s “spirit medal.” Wegley and Corey accepted their medals from race director Lora Loveall, who announced through tears that it meant so much to have Corey back at the event and with her triathlon family.
Since she began physical therapy, Corey’s goal has been to get out of her wheelchair and walk on her own power. She approached her rehabilitation the way she approached triathlon training, throwing all of her energy and effort into her goal.
For more than two years Corey has worked with her physical therapist in rehabilitation three times each week. In addition, she spends 5 or 6 hours each day doing activities on her own that are designed to enhance her physical therapy. Corey’s Boise home is equipped with stability balls, a treadmill and other pieces that allow her to keep working toward her goal. Corey’s father rigged her treadmill with a harness similar to the one she uses at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation. That apparatus supports her body weight so she can walk.
One piece of equipment that couldn’t be replicated at home is also one of Corey’s favorites. A functional electrical stimulation (FES) bike incorporates electrical stimulation to impaired muscles on Corey’s legs, giving her the ability to use multiple muscle groups at the same time.
An FES bike usually costs between $30,000 and $35,000. In 2015 an Idaho Steelheads military jersey auction raised more than $17,000, giving St. Luke’s Rehabilitation the boost it needed to purchase the bike.
Most people end their rehabilitation after 20 sessions (that’s the standard covered by most insurers). Corey pressed on after reaching that number, determined to continue her rehabilitation regardless of the cost.
“I believe in my heart I will get out of this chair,” she said. “I know there are no guarantees, but I know if I quit trying it will never happen.”
Part of triathlon training is finding ways to shave off time during each race. Every second counts, so making small changes can add up toward reaching that ultimate goal. Corey applies that rationale to her rehabilitation, embracing every activity possible if it will help her reach that end goal of walking. Sticking with her rehabilitation is a key part of that strategy.
“People shouldn’t have to give up if they don’t want to,” Wegley said. “She decided early on she would do whatever it takes.”
Participating in the Emmett triathlon was an important part of that process because it reignited a passion for a sport she loves deeply. Corey wrote the following reflection to summarize her return to the sport of triathlon:“Before doing this event with Joe, satisfying my soul had not been a priority of mine. I had feared that spending time on an activity that wasn’t directly involved in me walking again, was a waste of time. Joe convinced me otherwise and for that I am grateful. Feeling race-day butterflies is the best medicine! Being immersed in a race environment has given me new energy and optimism; this will fuel me towards chasing a finish line that isn’t always visible or defined. This continued journey will not be free of pot holes or flat tires. Yet, with the great team that I have, any issue will not result in a DNF (do not finish).”
Chereen Langrill is a former communications coordinator for St. Luke’s Health System