Just more than three years ago, Taylor Sheehan was a high school athlete coming to grips with spending the rest of her life in a wheelchair after a car crash.
She watched from the sideline in her wheelchair as her Class C basketball team started the new season without her.
“After that first game, it was awful,” Sheenan said. “When I got home that night, I cried and cried and cried. It was hard to accept that I would no longer be on the court with my team.”
Despite the obstacles — or perhaps because of them — the Montana State University Billings freshman has channeled her competitive spirit in a new direction and no longer sees her disability as a hindrance to taking up sports such as boxing.
“I never thought that I’d be boxing because so much of it revolves around kicking and use of your legs — seemingly a sport that would be off-limits to someone in a wheelchair,” Sheehan said during a February boxing class as she wrapped a long strip of pink gauze securely around her wrists.
On both sides of her wheelchair, two friends crouched and braced their arms underneath Sheehan, lifting her from her chair and onto a fitness mat beside theirs during the Pink Gloves boxing class the girls attend twice a week. The class program is designed for women focusing on fitness and empowerment. The culmination of that is winning a set of pink boxing gloves. The program runs on a tier system similar to earning a black belt in karate.
Warming up in the downtown Anytime Fitness studio, she stretched her arms before a wall of mirrors among about 10 other women. When it came time to stretch their legs, Sheehan stretched her abs instead.
She’d attended several sessions in the weeks before, but on this day — Feb. 13 — she would officially test into the Pink Gloves Boxing group after leading the class of women in a four-count boxing routine.
Her ponytail bounced and she smiled in a clenched-fist stance as she performed the four-count practice — alternating a right cross and then sweeping low into a left hook. She was focused and calculated.
Next, she swiftly rotated through the heavy bags, the freestanding punching bag, a speed bag, shadowboxing in front of a mirror and finally into sparring with another boxer.
The instructor, Donnette Roberts, creates customized and challenging routines for Sheehan, substituting lower-body movements with upper-body exercises.
“The program is all about building champions in each other, and in ourselves,” Roberts said.
The best part, Sheehan said, is feeling like she again is part of a team. “This gives me the chance to be competitive and to push myself in setting and reaching new goals.”
With painted pink fingernails and pink Nikes, Sheehan has adjusted to rolling with the punches of life in her pink-framed manual wheelchair.
But it’s a life she never expected. Three years ago, as she jumped into the red pickup truck with a friend on their way home from what would be the last basketball game of Sheehan's high school career, she saw other horizons.
As Sheehan drifted in and out of consciousness in the early hours of March 7, 2010, she lay motionless inside the beat-up pickup while her friend ran for help.
They were two miles outside the windblown town of Richey, a mile from the nearest house and 20 miles from their home in Lambert.
Fog blanketed the snow-packed prairie where the wrecked 1982 GMC pickup landed after rolling off Montana Highway 200.
It was just after midnight, and the teenagers were more than halfway home from the 70-mile trek to Wolf Point, where they had competed in the Eastern C divisional girls basketball tournament, followed by drinking vodka and Sunny D while watching the remaining games.
Because of the low visibility, Sheehan’s friend needed nearly 45 minutes to get to the closest house, where she called her dad and told him what happened.
Unaware of Sheehan’s critical condition, she told her father they were fine and that she just needed him to come and get them.
Back at the crash, Sheehan imagined a landslide of scenarios as she lay helpless and in severe pain. Even so, it hadn’t registered that she had no use of her legs.
More than an hour had gone by before a passerby noticed the crash off the highway. Had the GMC’s headlights been off and the passerby not seen the wreck, it’s likely that several more hours would have passed before paramedics arrived.
The man found Sheehan unconscious and sprawled inside the pickup. She wasn’t wearing her seat belt, and her 5-foot, 11-inch frame had undergone what the investigating trooper described as the "washing machine effect."
A painful memory
Now 19, Sheehan still doesn't know exactly how the crash happened. Her memory of the night is made up of fragments of what she recalls and what others have told her.
Moments she does recall, however, are painfully imprinted. She remembers being up on the dashboard at one point and on the floor of the truck the next. She recalls what seemed like an avalanche of snow on the truck’s hood, being cold and insisting that paramedics not move her because she was in so much pain.
The Montana Highway Patrol's crash report states that the 17-year-old driver said she fell asleep at the wheel, drifted into the opposite lane off the roadway and into a ditch, which caused the truck to roll.
Neither girl wore a seat belt. The driver received minor injuries.
Once the ambulance arrived nearly two hours after the crash, Sheehan was taken to the Sidney hospital and then flown to Billings Clinic, where she spent the next week in intensive care.
Every rib on her left side was broken, her left lung collapsed, and her spleen ruptured, eventually having to be removed. But she fully recovered from those injuries.
It was her broken back and massive spinal cord injuries that left her paralyzed from the waist down.
Doctors told her had she been wearing a seat belt, she probably would still be walking.
Defying her disability
Before the crash, Sheehan’s life had been much like that of other small-town Eastern Montana teenagers. She was weeks away from her 17th birthday and excited for her school’s prom night.
She was on the student council, volunteered with the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program and, at just shy of 6 feet tall, was a post player on the basketball team.
Today, Sheehan is one of four students registered with MSUB Disability Support Services who use a wheelchair, said Trudy Carey, director of the service.
The freshman's dorm room, splashed with hot pink and posters of Bob Marley and Marilyn Monroe, was custom-fitted by the MSUB staff. The space is large enough for a couch and for her to spin full circle. Low shelving in her closet provides easy access to clothes. And just down the hall, she has a private bath stall reserved for her.
Outside the building is a handicapped parking space, also reserved for her, where she parks her 2010 Ford F-150 with pink racing stripes on the hood.
The truck is equipped with hand controls accessible to her on the left side of the steering wheel and a hydraulic lift seat that elevates her from the ground and into driving position. A second lift behind the seat lifts her wheelchair into the backseat.
“There are accommodations almost everywhere I go,” Sheehan said.
She weaves in and out of walking traffic with ease as she wheels around campus hallways and common areas, stopping often to say hello to friends.
Her whole life she has been fiercely independent, Sheehan said. And losing some of her independence after the crash has been the most challenging aspect of life in a wheelchair.
At times, friends and strangers try to push her around in her wheelchair or do things for her that she can handle.
“I am adamant about doing things for myself,” she said. “If I let people do things for me, I’m afraid I’ll become dependent and lazy.”
But there are moments when she asks for help — for instance, with reaching something on a high shelf at the grocery store.
"I am insecure about asking for help, but I am getting better at it, and I've realized that everyone needs helps from time to time, not just me, not just because I’m in a wheelchair.”
Glad to be alive
Although good days have outnumbered the bad, the bad days can be intense, she said. Sheehan experiences moments of sadness and regret. She sometimes worries whether her disability will prevent her from someday having children, and she lives with daily nerve pain in her thighs.
“But I try to stay positive — maybe the fact that I feel pain in my legs is a sign that I may regain overall feeling in them someday,” she said.
She believes the crash happened for a reason. Perhaps, she said, the purpose serves to help others avoid the decisions she made three years ago — decisions that for many others have resulted in death.
She said she hopes that by sharing her story, lives will be saved and people will think twice about wearing their seat belt and driving while under the influence.
“I’m glad to be alive,” Sheehan said. “I consider myself lucky. I plan to live my life to the fullest and hopefully be a positive role model to people along the way."
On Feb. 13, Sheehan successfully tested into the Pink Gloves boxing group. Focused on her abilities, she is determined to earn a set of the coveted gloves.
Throughout the past several weeks of boxing training, she said she's gained confidence, physical endurance and a new group of friends whom she calls her "Pink Gloves family."
"We all look up to Taylor," said Roberts, the class instructor. "She is an inspiration and reminds us that you can do anything you set out to do, as long as you believe in yourself."