A two-time letter-winner and MVP on Coronado High School's Varsity team, Courtney Ryan's future in competitive soccer shined brighter than the Southern California sun. In her senior year, her demanding presence on the left side's defense paved the way for an exciting recruitment offer from Metro State University of Denver.
While at MSU Denver, Ryan worked rigorously to advance the team—so rigorously that one morning, in the midst of her Junior year soccer season, she felt a strange tingling and numbness in her legs before a game but opted to ignore it, a testament to her unwaveringly competitive spirit.
What she did not anticipate is that her life was about to change forever.
While competing in an away game, she was running for a ball when she suddenly felt a stabbing pain in her back.
"I collapsed and don't really remember much after that because I went into shock," she said.
In an instant, Ryan was paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors said that a blood clot had burst in her spinal cord, causing the nerves to detach. The fall, she says, instigated the injury to arrive sooner, but doctors said the clot would have eventually burst regardless.
"I'm considered an incomplete T-9 paraplegic," she said.
Suddenly in a wheelchair, Ryan was devastated. But moving home to San Diego provided comfort for her, and her family had a lot to do with it.
"[My parents] kinda pushed me to start getting active again because they knew that what I needed was to be active."
Activity may have been limited in regards to soccer, but Ryan still managed to fulfill her passion for sports by trying out her hand in wheelchair basketball. Understandably, the transition was not easy.
"Initially I was like, 'Oh I don't know about adaptive athletics. Wheelchair sports just doesn't seem very competitive," she said.
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But the more Ryan practiced, the more she realized not only how fun the sport of wheelchair basketball can be, but also the importance and necessity of its existence.
"Not only am I more motivated to play sports," she said, "but the most rewarding thing about adaptive athletics is changing perceptions. And every time we get out on that court and somebody sees wheelchair basketball for the first time, we change their perception of disability—whereas before they could have thought, 'Oh, poor them.'"
Ryan was later recruited with a scholarship to University of Arizona's wheelchair basketball team.
"The disability empowered me to do better in school and education," she said. "Before my disability, I was like, 'Oh, well, I'll just stick with sports,' but after I was like, 'Okay, well, I have to have something other than that. So I was able to get on the honor roll."
Ryan graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rehabilitation Counseling—a skill she now puts forth at Rancho Los Amigos rehabiliation hospital in Downey, where she acts as a mentor towards people who have also suffered traumatic physical injuries.
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Remarkably, Ryan's giving spirit does not end there. With the assistance of her partner Molly Bloom, she managed to start her own wheelchair basketball team for in Los Angeles—the only team of its kind in California.
The team, "Shield Maidens," now competes in tournaments across the world.
"The most empowering thing is getting this group of women together that have such different cultures and ideas, and you get them all together in one room, and they all just kind of vibe and have a good time."
The Shield Maidens returned home from Seattle on March 23rd with a fourth place finish in the National Championship tournament.
"That's very rewarding—to give the opportunity to these women to travel and compete at a high level, that they've never really gotten to achieve before," she said.
Looking ahead, Ryan plans to stay in LA and recruit young women for wheelchair basketball so she can continue to develop and grow the sport.