LIVING WITHOUT LIMITS: PARALYMPIC ATHLETE JUDY SIEGLE MAKES A WORLD CLASS COMEBACK
 

   

Lutheran Brotherhood

Strengthening Ties Through Stewardship

Bond
November/December 1999
By Dave Kirchner and Rick Jost


After a tragic car crash, Judy Siegle - athlete, social worker speaker- still chases dreams. Her grit and faith inspire others who are physically challenged.

"Wherever you are, be all there. Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God." A favorite quote.

On a hot and breezy August afternoon, Judy Siegle eases into her "racing chair" and wheels out to a local school track in Fargo, N.D.

She slides heavy, black mitts onto her hands, tightening them by pulling the straps with her teeth. Judy, physically challenged for 20 years, is able to grip things with her left hand, but not her right. So her teeth become "my third hand, or my second hand," she says.

Judy leans forward, her chin nearly touching her knees, and pulls the racing chair into motion. The chair rolls faster and faster down the track as she bats the wheels' inner rims with her mitted hands. "You're supposed to be punching the rims," she would after explain. "Punching and punching them as fast as you can."

Nearby, kids are playing on a football field to watch and wonder: "Does she have handles on her wheels?"

"How does she do that?"

Judy laughs. "I love talking to little kids. They ask the neatest questions. The best one was, "Does that have an air bag?"

The training routine is repeated about six days a week. Typically she will complete 12 400-meter laps and 10 "starts" of about 50 meters. "Usually I warm up with a mile and a half before I do anything."

Arm and shoulder strength is essential and Judy's track practice is followed three days a week by weight training at a local fitness center. In mornings and evenings she often has to ice her forearms to help sore muscles recover. This is what it takes to train at an elite level, when the goal is the 2000 Paralympics.

Training is not only hard work, but it also is part of her job. Judy, a member of Lutheran Brotherhood, works half days at MeritCare Hospital in Fargo, counseling patients with disabilities, and spends the rest of her hours training for the Paralympics and speaking to various schools and organizations. Her training is sponsored by MeritCare under the Olympic Job Opportunity Program.

"I feel like I've got a full life," Judy says. "I realize that a lot of people with disabilities don't have the opportunities I've had - a good education, a good support system, a great job. So I'm grateful for what I have."

Even before her accident, Judy Siegle (pronounced SIG lee) was not a stranger to overachievement. In high school in Pelican Rapids, Minn. she participated in speech and track. She sang in the choir, played in the band and captained the varsity football cheerleading squad. But it was on the basketball court where she was a star, named all-conference three years and all-state on year. After graduation in spring 1979, it was only natural that she'd enter her parents' alma mater, Concordia College in nearby Moorhead. There, she would look forward to playing college ball and perhaps trying her hand at coaching.

But plans change. On August 11, 1979, just weeks before the start of her freshman year at Concordia, a horrific automobile crash left Judy with a broken neck and a concussion.

"As I look back on it," Judy says, "the concussion was a blessing. With my memory coming back gradually, there wasn't that sudden blow of being able-bodied one minute and looking at life in a wheelchair the next."

Judy's days were positive, but nights were of another sort. Her emotional struggle with disability manifested itself through repeated nightmares. More weeks passed, and then in a late night conversation with Concordia's campus pastor at the time, Judy found the peace of mind she'd been searching for.

Pastor Ernie Mancini helped her understand that being a Christian didn't necessarily mean she wouldn't experience bouts of frustration and anger. But God was going with her and would give her the strength to meet the emotions and challenges that lay ahead. And the nightmares ended.

The road back was long, but in summer 1980 Judy attended her first classes at Concordia and then returned full time in the fall to start her freshman year. Days were spent alternately between her speech communications classes and rigorous workouts at the gym. "I was so faithful about working out each day," she recalls. "I'd go to class and I'd go to the gym, and then I'd go back to class and back to the gym. They said I'd never walk again, but I remember thinking maybe it'll be two years or three years or five years, but maybe I will walk again."

With the help of leg braces and, at first, a walker, Judy's laps around the gym track increased from one to five. On one particularly memorable spring day in her freshman year, she managed 12 laps, a full mile. But it was the few steps she took some three years later, when she proudly walked across the stage to receive her diploma for graduation at Concordia that people still talk about.

With characteristic modesty, Judy downplays the accomplishment. "I walked every day in the gym, so I just thought, "I have the ability and I'd rather walk."

But Louise A. Nettleton, writing the Concordia Alumni News, eloquently captured the drama of the occasion: Programs stopped fanning, children ceased stirring. Everything was frozen in place except for the radiantly smiling young women making her purposeful way across the stage. The applause began when she reached President Paul Dovre. Her fellow magna cum laude classmates rose first; then wave on wave, the remaining thousands that filled the room swelled to their feet. Even those who had never heard of Judy Siegle were aware they had witnessed something historic and unforgettable. Those who knew her wept.

Selected a student speaker for the Honors Convocation just two days before, Judy Siegle spoke to the crowd assembled in Memorial Auditorium of the three E's: excellence, endurance and enthusiasm. "That was 15 years ago," Judy recalls, "but I still use those words today. I use those words because they're easy to plug into my life experiences. What I wasn't aware of then was that the sports world would open up to me again."

Would it ever!

Judy's career was flourishing. As a social worker at MeritCare Hospital, she was having a positive impact with rehabilitation patients who, like herself, were learning to live independently after a disabling condition.

But still there was something missing.

"When I was in graduate school, I tried wheelchair basketball. But because I don't have very much triceps strength, I couldn't always get the ball to the bucket." Then, on a whim, Judy tried quad rugby, playing with a team called the North Dakota Wallbangers. "I wasn't a very good quad rugby player, to tell you the truth," she admits. "In fact, I was about the last one off the bench, and we didn't even have a bench. But my first national tournament was in San Jose, Calif., and it was there that I was blown away by being with 100 other quads and hearing about all the other sports activities they were involved in. They were doing everything! I thought, "Where have I been?"

A better question might be, "Where would she go?"

The athletes she met at that first rugby tournament encouraged her to get into road racing. The match clicked. Soon Judy was participating in wheelchair races all over the Midwest, training with some of the country's top coaches at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana and setting more than a few national records along the way. Her 1997 records in the 400-, 800-, 1,500- and 5,000-meter events still stand.

Her racing success was all it took to rekindle Judy's "inner athlete." Downhill skiing in Colorado became a favorite activity. So did kayaking on Lake Superior with Wilderness Inquiry, which conducts trips both for the able-bodied and the disabled "It was kind of like all the doors started opening at once," Judy says, with no small sense of wonder. "It was such a thrill for me because I wasn't aware that so many options for the disabled were out there."

And for Judy, the thrills will keep on coming. Representing the United States in the 1996 Paralympics was "an incredible honor." Now her sights are set on making the team for the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney - an especially tough goal because there will be nearly two-thirds fewer track and field slots than there were at the 1996 competition in Atlanta.

But achieving goals - and setting examples - is much of what Judy Siegle is about. "We have so many opportunities for leading full lives - whether it's learning how to cook or expanding your vocabulary or being one of the top three quadriplegic women in the world in an athletic event. I love encouraging others who are physically challenged - encouraging them in life and encouraging them in faith."

It's just two days before the 20th anniversary of Judy's auto accident. She's well aware of this fact but maintains that the date will come and go as just another day. "Though I've been physically challenged for 20 years - in fact it will be 20 years August 11 - I've come to learn that everyone has challenges," she explains.


Book titles in Judy's tidy, one-bedroom apartment in downtown Fargo tell much of how she has responded to her challenges: "When Go Whispers Your Name, Celebration of Discipline, I'm Running to Win, The Wonderful Spirit-Filled Life."

Her mementos include photos from Romania, where she participating in a ‘Wheels for the World' trip in October 1998. The trip was part of the ministry of Joni Eareckson Tada, a quadriplegic since 17 who wants to deliver the gospel message to people with disabilities. In Bucharest and Craiova, Romania, 150 wheelchairs and Bibles were delivered to disabled persons. Judy, besides serving as a spiritual inspiration, helped teach the Romanians how to maneuver on ramps and steps in their wheelchairs.

"In my struggle for independence," Judy says, "I've learned a lot about my dependence on God."

Judy's life honors one of her favorite quotes, a passage from a book by Elisabeth Elliot: "Wherever you are, be all there. Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God."

Racing in a wheelchair against world-class athletes. Touching the hand of a physically challenged hospital patient. Walking with crutches to a speaker's podium. "Wherever you are..."

When Judy recites the words, her admiration for them - her belief in them - is unmistakable in her voice. But she's quick to add, "I don't always know what the will of God is from day to day. But this is where God has got me today, and so I want to be all there and put myself into what I'm doing and who I'm with. And I do it with a grateful heart."

Judy with her sister, Susan Richards, and their mother, Faye, at a send-off rally before the 1996 Paralympics.

A Romanian woman who received a wheelchair in the 1998 "Wheels for the World" ministry trip.

Whether pulling left, or pushing, right, Judy's training includes working out with weights three days a week at a fitness center. "I'm training at an elite level," she says.

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