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Disabling cheer accident doesn't keep Jennifer McCallson on the sidelines

Published in the University of Southern California News April 8, 2015

Jennifer McCallsonn takes off down the slopes in Durango, CO.

The day Jennifer McCallson’s world turned upside down plays in her mind like a silent film.

The auditorium is rocking with hundreds of high-schoolers on the edge of their seats, pumping up their role models and mentors – college-level cheerleaders in a fierce competition. The finishing number is a showstopper. McCallson opens her palms and lets the energy run through her. She takes off at dizzying speed, gaining momentum – a progression of tumbling passes. She is a treat to watch.

Then life starts to be counted in seconds, fractions, inches. In an instant, she collides midair with her male teammate. He lands on her neck, shattering her fifth cervical vertebra and crushing her spinal cord. She is fully conscious and instantly paralyzed from the neck down.

“One or two inches off, or seconds, and I wouldn’t be here,” McCallson remembers. “Just a slight alteration in my footing – it would have all been different.” A split second – fortuitous or calamitous, depending how you view it.”

Reclaiming the moment

Jennifer McCallson says her service Labrador, Sudo, taught her “to love again.”

She was 20, and doctors told her she would never walk again or live independently, let alone participate in any of the sports she loved. Her athletic dream was over. “Move on with your life,” they said.
She’s been proving them wrong ever since.

Since that day 15 years ago, McCallson has earned a bachelor’s degree in sports management with an emphasis in wellness and fitness. She hand-cycled a half marathon, snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef, peddled at a spin-a-thon, jet-skied in the Pacific and snow-skied on Purgatory Mountain in Colorado. She’s kayaked, swam and surfed. She’s been riding horses for the last four years.

And she volunteers tirelessly for organizations that serve people with physical disabilities. She has made it a matter of principle to encourage the mind to go wherever the heart dares.

“I’m not going to let my fear get in the way of what I’m about to do,” she said. “I’m going to have an amazing life, and it won’t be hindered by the fact that I use a wheelchair…”

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