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Blind Ambition

Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest, is on a mission to get other would-be adventurers with disabilities to see what’s possible

Author Buddy Levy

Amanda Boxtel says she’ll be hiking mountains soon

Amanda Boxtel says she’ll be hiking mountains soon

ALONG WITH BOB  WOODRUFF—the ABC News anchor who was severely wounded while reporting on the Iraq War in 2006—Amanda Boxtel is one of the Telluride summit’s biggest attractions. Paralyzed from the hips down by a skiing accident in 1992, Boxtel has gone on to become a celebrated adaptive athlete and ski instructor. She has established programs in Chile, Argentina and Iceland, where paraplegics can descend a mountain on specialized skiing equipment.

Like Weihenmayer, Boxtel has become a celebrated figure in the No Barriers community and is known to be a highly effective motivational speaker, but her presentation today in the summit’s main auditorium is more about what she does than what she says. As the lights come up, the 46-year-old native of Brisbane, Australia, walks—not wheels—onto the stage, courtesy of an exoskeleton she’s nicknamed “Tucker.”

The technology that allows Boxtel to do this is the work of Ekso Bionics, a California company that works in conjunction with institutions, including U.C. Berkeley, to develop and modify these wearable robots. As she makes her way to center stage, Boxtel’s steps are labored and require forearm crutches for stability. But the expression on her face is one of unequivocal, almost childlike glee. “I call that my ‘bionic smile,’” she says later. “It’s the giddy grin people get when they get out of their wheelchair, into an exoskeleton, then stand up and start walking.”

As Boxtel begins her presentation, which is more homily than lecture, the wheelchair users in the audience fidget, rolling back and forth. “The first time I used an exoskeleton it was very emotional. I had long dreamed of walking and this was exactly how I imagined it,” she tells the crowd, before offering a litany of medical benefits, which include reducing atrophy and retraining neuropathways.

“But for me,” she continues, “it’s allowed me to give someone a standing, heart-to-heart hug, with no wheelchair between us. It’s hard to describe just how liberating that is.”

Here, Boxtel pauses until the room becomes silent. “I think that two years from now, we’ll be pushing these exoskeletons to new limits,” she says finally. “We’ll be hiking mountains soon!”

The crowd erupts. When the cheering subsides, she looks directly at a group of audience members in wheelchairs. “For those of you in wheelchairs,” she says, “get ready to walk!”

A mother bends over her son, who’s watching mesmerized from his wheelchair, and embraces him fiercely.

3 Responses to “Blind Ambition”

  1. Bryan Brown Says:
    December 10th, 2013 at 11:07 pm

    This has already been done. Here’s the press release:

    Blind Hoosier Kayaker Runs Grand Canyon

    Lonnie Bedwell Completes Epic Whitewater First with Team River Runner

    On August 21, 2013, U.S. Navy veteran Lonnie Bedwell became the first blind kayaker to solo the Grand Canyon, which is well established as one of the most challenging whitewater venues in the world. Bedwell traveled in the company of Team River Runner, a kayaking organization designed to help American veterans cope with serious injuries. The Grand Canyon has a well-earned reputation as one of the most challenging whitewater venues in the world, and requires boating skills that generally require years to develop. Once Mr. Bedwell, who lost his eyesight 16 years ago in a hunting accident, focused his attention upon kayaking, however, he developed the necessary boat-handling skills in roughly one year by practicing in the pond on his Sullivan-County, Indiana, property. He also undertook training on various well-known whitewater stretches in the Appalachian foothills.

    The Grand Canyon trip, which took 16 days to complete, involved three additional whitewater kayakers who were sighted, and who coached Lonnie through some 200 highly demanding (Class IV and Class V) rapids with voice commands that he was somehow able to hear over the roaring of the rapids. One paddler generally preceded Lonnie through a set of rapids (occasionally backwards to facilitate communications), and two paddlers followed him closely to be readily available in case he capsized in the waves, which can range from 3 feet to roughly 30 feet in height depending upon the rapid.

    Mr. Bedwell, who is highly involved in a number of other outdoor activities as well as kayaking, thanks Team River Runner for its efforts on his behalf and actively supports the organization in its endeavors to help his fellow veterans recover from their injuries.

    Contact Information
    Lonnie Bedwell
    7794 E County Road 250 S
    Dugger, IN 47848-8117
    Telephone: 812-648-2373
    e-mail: lonnie.r.bedwell@att.net

    Links for Review
    http://www.teamriverrunner.org/

    http://www.indystar.com/viewart/20130906/NEWS/309060034/Blind-Indiana-man-completes-226-mile-kayak-trip-through-Grand-Canyon

    http://www.sullivan-times.com/

    http://www.grindtv.com/outdoor/excursions/post/veteran-becomes-first-blind-kayaker-to-paddle-grand-canyon/

  2. Theresa Says:
    December 13th, 2013 at 10:36 am

    I read this article on a flight this week and was totally inspired. Thank you for sharing Weihenmayer’s story.

  3. sandra Carol Says:
    February 13th, 2014 at 1:06 am

    Thanks for sharing this blog

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