Jessica Galli: How I became a Paralympian

By Jessica Galli | June 03, 2013, 12 p.m. (ET)
Jessica Galli
Jessica Galli celebrates winning the women's 400 meter (T53) final at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games. Over four Paralympic Games, she has won seven medals for the United States in track events.

On a cool fall day in 1991, I visited a local farm with my neighbor, Kara, and her mother. We spent the morning picking pumpkins and eating candy apples. I had no idea that on the way home my life would change forever. 

The next morning, I woke up in a hospital bed at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J. I was told that I had been in a terrible car accident that had left me paralyzed, Kara injured and her mother dead. 

After two weeks of recovery, I was sent to Children’s Specialized Hospital in Mountainside for four months of rehabilitation. It was in CSH that I finally faced reality: I was never going to walk again. I was never going to participate in gymnastics again. Life as I knew it had ended or so it seemed at the time.

People often comment on how difficult it must be to live life in a wheelchair or on how brave I am for moving on with my life following the accident. But the truth is I didn’t see any other option but to move on. I think I owe a lot of that to the fact that I was only 7 years old when I was injured. After my hospital stays, I returned to the second grade. All of my classmates treated me as they had before the accident. My teacher held me to the same standards she had held for me prior to my injury. And I viewed myself as the cool girl in a hot pink wheelchair. Life goes on.

Yet the one aspect of my new life that I couldn't adjust to was not being able compete in gymnastics. I was injured only one week prior to my first meet. I was devastated. While in the hospital, I listened to my floor routine music on repeat and wished I could be at the gym practicing with friends. 

While at CSH, I met Andy Chasanoff. Andy was working as recreational therapist and also as the coach of the CSH Lightning Wheels, a sports team for children with a disability. I would be lying if I told you that the first time I heard about the Lightning Wheels I asked "Where do I sign up?" I was a bit of a grumpy patient and justly earned the nickname Wendy Whiner by the nurses. So it took a bit of coaxing by Andy to get me to my first Lightning Wheels practice. Boy am I glad he was so persistent! I instantly fell in love with my teammates and the various sports I got to try. For the first time, I was surrounded by kids "like me." Everyone on the team had a disability and yet they didn't let that stop them from competing in sports.

I practiced with the Lightning Wheels every Thursday from there on out. In 1993, I competed in my first National Junior Disability Championships in Columbus, Ohio. I remember seeing superstars such as LeAnn Shannon and Lauren Reynolds out on the track. I knew I wanted to be like them when I grew up. I began taking the sport more seriously once I moved into middle school. 

In 1998, I was honored to be named to my first U.S. team. That summer I traveled to Birmingham, England, with Team USA to compete at the International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships. I got my first taste of the international scene there and my hunger for more only grew upon my return home.

Upon my arrival stateside, my dad sat me down and said that if I wanted to compete in Sydney in two years then the training would begin immediately. I'm lucky because my parents have always been supportive of my athletic pursuits. My dad became my coach and we set a goal of making the 2000 Paralympic Games.  

After many long hours spent at the track, I earned my spot on the 2000 U.S. Paralympic Team. 

Since then, I have continued to work hard and continued to set my goal on the next big competition. 

I am honored to say that I am four-time Paralympian, seven-time Paralympic medal winner and multiple World Record holder. And the truth of it all is that if I hadn't gone to the farm on that tragic day in September 1991, I probably wouldn't be writing this story today. And had I been sent to a different hospital for rehabilitation I may never have learned about the world of athletics that I am now a part of. 

My family, Andy Chasanoff and my other coaches and teammates from the CSH Lightning Wheels, my teachers and classmates, and my coaches and teammates at the University of Illinois have all shaped me and prepared me to become a Paralympian. And it is with them that I share my successes. 

Jessica Galli has represented the United States at four consecutive Paralympic Games, starting with the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games. She has seven Paralympic medals in track events, including a gold medal in the women's 400 meter (T53) race at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games.