Judy Siegle :: Article


Her past, present and future goals provide a power source for life.

By Merrie Sue Holtan
The Area Woman, Fargo, North Dakota
Autumn 1992

“Everyone has different challenges in life. You can become bitter if you deny there’s a problem or fail to deal with it, or you can become better if you choose to look at the challenge as an opportunity for growth.” Judy Siegle

6:50, 6:51, 6:52, 6:53, 6:54, 6:55, 6:56. FINISH. “Not a very good time,” she thinks. “But better than last time. Will I ever make the six-minute mile? How can that guy from Minneapolis do a four-minute mile? I need more upper body strength. I better press harder on my interval training.”

Thoughts – athlete’s thoughts. Thoughts of always pushing her body just a little bit harder. Thoughts reminding her she could become better and faster. Next time, she thinks positively, it will be better.

And so she sets her pace again. One more time around the NDSU track, one more time around Island Park, one more time around her self-styled south Fargo Prairiewood racetrack. Somedays she can’t wait to be done with work so she can go over her course again and again. Somedays it means 6 1/2 miles of training.

When you first meet Judy Siegle, social worker at St. Luke’s MeritCare, you can’t help thinking, “what an athlete, what a dedicated athlete.” Then you realize she has a master’s degree, and has friends all of the United States, and is attractive and has a great job.

But there is something else about her. You can’t stop thinking about her or telling others about her story. Her past, present and future goals stay with you providing a power source for life. Because, you see, Judy does have everything a young woman wants: friends, talent, beauty, intellect, athletic ability. But she also has a cane, leg brace and a wheelchair.

In 1970, the summer after graduating from Pelican Rapids High School, Judy was in a car accident that involved a drunk driver who ran a stop sign. Judy’s neck was broken, and two passengers in the other car were killed. The accident meant long years of rehabilitation, persistence and discipline for Judy. But she never gave up. She never put limits on herself.

In 1990, Judy was named North Dakota’s Outstanding Disabled Employee and in 1991, during Concordia’s centennial celebration year, Judy received one of 11 centennial medals presented to outstanding graduates of the century.

“I try not to focus on what I can’t do,” says Judy, “but try to put my energy into what is working for me. At times I have surprised myself and family (and my doctors) by accomplishing things I never thought possible. I’ve dared to step out, literally one foot at a time, and doors have opened for me.”

The doctors probably would be surprised to see Judy racing through Island Park in her custom-made wheelchair. She recently entered her first 5K wheelchair race around Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis and came in first in her division. Judy’s quad rugby team, the Wallbangers, won fifth place in national competition in California. What’s quad rugby? “Well,” smiles Judy, “We play on a basketball court with a volleyball. It’s a combination of rugby, volleyball, basketball and hockey. The Wallbangers are based in Grand Forks and I go up weekly for practice.”

This past summer Judy participated with a friend in the triathlon held during Moorhead Riverfront Days. She has also taken part in Wilderness Inquiry, which takes able bodied and disabled canoeing in the Canadian/Minnesota boundary waters. With this same group she has been kayaking near the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior. Two summers ago at the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colorado, Judy rafted through white waters, tried alpine sledding and learned to ride a tandem bicycle (built for two).

Ten years ago, Judy’s family helped her cross-country ski for the first time. Now she downhill skis on the Colorado slopes and at Spirit Mountain in Duluth, Minn., using the “four-tracking” method. “The skis are great and I feel so wonderful on the slopes,” she says. “My skis are regular skis which are stabilized by being fastened at the tips. My poles have outriggers or little skis on the ends for balance.

“It’s great for me to be an active participant in the sports world again. It’s a thrill for me to be able to go with my peers. Even winter is not as confining for me.”

In order to compete athletically, Judy works out regularly at Broadway Health Center and the YMCA. She lifts weights, swims laps and works to increase her muscle tone and aerobic capacity. To be ready for her next wheelchair race, Judy is concentrating on technique because she needs to develop upper body strength for a stronger push (of the wheels).

Physical activity, however, is not new to Judy. She grew up with an active, sports loving family. Judy’s dad, Al, is an administrative assistant and was a longtime football coach at Pelican Rapids. Her mom, Faye, is a homemaker and special education teacher.

“We grew up being active in sports,” adds Judy. “I learned discipline, goal setting and how to push my body physically.” Judy was named to the all conference girl’s basketball team for three years and was a Minnesota All State team selection in 1979. She participated in track, cheerleading and band where she played flute and piccolo. She was also active in her church youth group.

“Mostly,” says Judy, “I am grateful for the support and love our family has for one another. As we were growing up finding time in the day to spend together as a family was difficult with active lifestyles. Breakfast was a meal we always had together. We also had devotions which bonded us in yet another way.”

Judy was also thankful that immediately following her accident she was unconscious with a concussion. “I feel,” she says, “that it gave my family a time to get over the immediate shock of the accident and to become strong so they could support me. It was a blessing for me, too, because I have no memory of the accident or the days that followed. It wasn’t a sudden blow for me to find out I couldn’t walk, but a gradual finding out of my condition. I appreciate having a really neat family. My parents, brother, Tim, and sister, Susan (Richards), and I keep regular contact. They are a vital part of my support system.”

Following her accident, Judy spent three months at St. Luke’s in Fargo and three months at the Craig Rehabilitation Hospital in Denver. With her father as her coach, Judy worked out two summers at home for 5-7 hours a day using a therapy program which involved electrical stimulation to retrain her leg muscles as well as swimming, walking at parallel bars and isometric conditioning.

“I remember,” says Judy, “doing my crawling exercises on the living room floor with my dad watching. I remember how the tears fell one particular morning and I cried to him, ‘I need a competitor. I need to know where I am in this race.’ The frustration for me was not knowing the end result. I had been in sports all my life and I knew what it felt like to win and lose. But this was different. I never knew where I was in the game.”

As Judy’s physical strength improved, she set goals for herself including walking across the stage to receive her college diploma in 1984. Prior to this event she had to condition herself to walk in public. “The concerns of falling and lack of a graceful walk were there,” she ways. “But my fears would not prevent me from achieving this goal. I was motivated to use what I had.”

In her senior year of college, Judy went on to become homecoming queen and the convocation speaker at graduation. She took part in the formal procession and walked forward to receive her diploma as a graduate of the Speech/Communication and Theatre Arts Department.

Besides her family, Judy feels her friends have added to her life. She feels the support of colleagues from St. Luke’s, friends from Pelican Rapids, and Fargo, her employers at Fairhills Resort, and her college friends helped her cope with her accident. “I’ve always had a lot of confidence,” she says, “because people have been there for me. They have offered hands of support over difficult terrain and words of encouragement to participate in new ventures.”

“These friends helped me not be angry about the accident. I feel that what’s done is done, so let’s just get on with life. This may not be what I had planned for my life but it is still a good life. I think everyone has different challenges in life. You can become bitter if you deny there's a problem or fail to deal with it, or you can become better if you choose to look at the challenge as an opportunity for growth.”

Now Judy meets even more new friends as she works in the social services department at St. Luke’s Merit Care. She earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Minnesota in 1987. After interning in the psychiatric unit at St. Luke’s, she was hired by St. Luke’s and worked in that same unit for two and one half years. Her heart and knowledge base was still in rehabilitation, however, and so she moved to the social services department where she works with stroke, head injury and spinal cord-injured patients. Judy aids patients with such things as discharge planning, insurance and lifestyle adjustments to help cope with disabilities.

As a member of the Fargo Mayor’s Committee for Employment of People with Disabilities and of FREEDOM, a resource center for independent living, Judy works to make the community more accessible for disabled person.

“Being disabled,” advises Judy, “requires some creative brainstorming to make things possible. For example, biking. I learned to ride a tandem, so I can go biking with my friends. Being disabled also means more planning ahead. I plan ahead for parking, building accessibility, and transportation when I go anywhere. I want to have as few surprises as possible. I have found this community to be quite accessible and the airlines have been wonderful toward disabled travelers.

Judy tells her own story often – to community service groups, church adult classes and youth groups. And the core of her talk? “Don’t dwell on what you are not,” she says. “Use what you have and don’t set limits for yourself.” She has enriched her own life by taking a leadership role in Bible Study Fellowship, an interdenominational Bible study.

Taking a positive approach to life and its challenges, Judy adds that her faith in God is a big part of who she is. “My faith gives me strength for the day and hope for the future,” she says. “I know that I am not going this way alone.”

Judy’s favorite quote and philosophy of life hangs on her refrigerator door, “Wherever you are, be all there. Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.”

“This is where God has me today,” she says, “and I am grateful. I will continue to ‘be all there’ and to put myself into life.”

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