About two years after I was injured, I decided to move to Los Angeles. There was some special physical therapy there I wanted to try and in addition, I needed to get away. After being discharged from the rehabilitation hospital post injury, I moved in with my dad to allow myself emotional healing time, be surrounded by family and get used to living life with SCI. But I had been on my own a long time, and it was important to me to be on my own again… Disabled or not.
I met incredible people while in Los Angeles and a few will be lifelong friends. One such person was a SCUBA instructor. He was an actor and had a foundation that helped people with disabilities and challenges SCUBA. When I was introduced to him and learned about his foundation, I asked him if he could teach me to dive.
He studied me quizzically for a long moment. I had a feeling he was weighing in his mind whether to say yes or no. He told me he had never taught or knew of anyone with my high level of injury going diving. I remained silent.
A heartbeat later, he gave me his address and asked if I could be at his house the following day with two people that could help. I said yes and then asked what we were going to do.
“Well, if you’re going to learn to SCUBA, you’re going to have to start with some lessons in my pool,” he said. I was thrilled. I asked him about the equipment I would need. He said I would use donated items until I passed the course. Once I started diving, the foundation would purchase equipment custom-made for me.
The next day I arrived at Nick’s house with two of my UCLA track buddies in tow. One was certified to SCUBA, one knew nothing about it. Perfect combination. Nick had sent me home the day before with something called a “skin.” It was a spandex bodysuit made for going under a SCUBA suit. Nick told me to come to my lesson with the skin on under my clothes.
The first thing we did was put my SCUBA suit on. Anyone who has ever put a SCUBA suit on will tell you it’s not the easiest thing in the world. I am six feet tall and paralyzed. Putting a SCUBA suit on me is about as easy as putting Gumbie in a Barbie outfit.
After a lot of tugging, pulling, sweating and swearing, I was ready to go. Getting me in the pool was easy… Kind of like handing off the baton in a track relay. Nick wanted to see how much I could move in the water and how comfortable I was in it.
My swimming background was a plus. Being underwater, breathing through a regulator, exhaling upon ascending… All were second nature to me. Due to my level of paralysis, I would always SCUBA with two ”buddies” instead of the usual one. If I only dove with one buddy and my buddy needed assistance, there would not be much I could do to help them.
Nick made me promise during my training wherever or whenever I dove, I would insist on two buddies. I gave him my word. It didn’t take any convincing. I didn’t relish at the thought of being seventy-five feet underwater in the ocean under circumstances less than perfect. “Oh, you need your backup regulator so you can breathe? Sorry, my hands are tied… I mean paralyzed.”
The day came for my first dive. Nick had quite a few disabled people diving that day, but if it’s your first time, you are the first diver. I was so excited. I was about to experience something new and exciting for the first time in three years. It’s safe to say I was overdue.
The ocean was freezing but I didn’t feel it… My adrenaline had kicked in. We had made our way down to a bit past sixty-five feet when the view suddenly became very clear. I got on my belly and my buddies towed me from above.
Suddenly I was swimming above a huge bat ray (looks just like a manta ray.) He had a long tail and his wingspan was about six feet. He was only a foot below me. The ray was swimming at our pace. My buddies stopped towing me. One came in front of me to take a picture of the look on my face. My eyes were as wide as silver dollars.
I thought we would begin swimming again… But Nick gave me the signal that we would start ascending. I shook my head no… I wasn’t ready for it to be over. Nick gave me the signal again and this time, showed me his watch. To be fair, Nick and I had agreed on forty-five minutes for my first dive, and my time was up. Folks diving with SCI have a much greater risk of hypothermia, and Nick was not going to chance it with me.
Nick could have began towing me without me agreeing and there was nothing I could do about it, but he wasn’t that type of person. I reluctantly agreed, and slowly we made our way back to the surface. We saw three huge garibaldi’s along the way. They were beautiful… Goldfish of the brightest orange the size of a Prius.
As we surfaced I felt the sun touch my face, and I laughed out loud with pure joy for the first time since the fateful night my life changed forever. I laughed and whooped and hollered like a cowboy. I will never forget the way I felt that day.
I used that feeling as a springboard for all the days after. I realized we experience joy, love and happiness in our lives because we create them… They don’t just fall from the sky by luck or chance.