I Became a Professional Dancer After a Car Crash Left Me Paralyzed
A drunk driving accident left Chelsie Hill paralyzed from the waist down. Here's how she continued pursuing her dreams and created one the biggest wheelchair dancing teams in the world.
Being active has always been an important part of my life. Growing up, I played volleyball, basketball, softball-you name it-but my heart was always in dance. I was dancing pretty much as soon as I could walk. And by the time I was 5, I was competing. I followed my passion throughout middle school and high school and during my senior year, I became the Central California State Champion. It was a dream come true.
I felt like I was at my peak. I had just won a huge regional title, I was dating this amazing guy, I was working two jobs-everything was going perfectly until something happened that changed my life forever.
It was February 2010 and I was hanging out at a friend's house after a basketball game. We ended up playing some beer pong and staying much later than planned, so when a friend offered to give me a ride home, I took him up on it. I knew that at one point in the night he'd had a red cup in his hand, but I didn't know he was hammered drunk. Like everyone who got into the car with me that night, I just figured that there was no way he would put all of our lives in danger.
So I got in the car and sat in the middle of the backseat with my seat belt strapped around my lap. I remember seeing a flashing yellow light, signaling us to slow down but we hit a curb-going straight into a ditch, hitting a tree head-on.
I don't remember a lot of what happened after that moment until I woke up in the hospital. Four days later, when I sat up for the first time, I was told that everyone else in the car got away with a few minor injuries, but since I was sitting in the middle, my body nearly split in half on impact. My skin was the only thing holding me together.
It wasn't until two weeks after the accident that the doctors finally told me that I'd never be able to walk again. When I heard the news, I remember telling my doctor: "I don't just want to walk, I'm a dancer." And he just looked and me and shook his said saying, "I'm sorry, but you won't be able to do that anymore."
In that moment, I didn't really believe him. I was in denial. I thought, How could this stranger come in and just tell me the craziest thing I'd ever heard? I was 17 years old and a T-10 paraplegic-and that was a hard truth to swallow.
It didn't truly hit me for another few weeks when I started having some serious breakdowns. I remember waking up one night screaming in the pediatric ICU because my pain machine malfunctioned. My dad was right there by my side and I asked him why this was happening to me. He told me that maybe it was my destiny to help others in my shoes-and people who don't have access to wheelchairs and proper health care like I did.
It was a crazy thought, and I remember looking at him through my tears and asking: "I can do that? I can really make an impact on someone's life?" He reassured me that I could do anything I wanted to. That moment stands out to me because it made me realize that I needed to take what had happened to me and use it to make a difference.
But getting to that point wasn't easy.
When I finally left the hospital 51 days after being admitted, it wasn't just hard for me, but extremely difficult for my parents as well. My mom had to help me go to the bathroom-she had to dress me and shower me. As soon as I went to sleep at night she had to come in and roll me every 30 minutes.
I was lucky that all of my friends and my dance team were incredibly supportive. They helped me get caught up on homework and more importantly, they made me feel less overwhelmed about getting accustomed to my new life as a paraplegic. (Related: What People Don't Know About Staying Fit In a Wheelchair.)
It was during these hours that we spent together that they came up with the idea of creating a wheelchair dance routine for me that I could perform at the end-of-year rally at school. I wasn't sure if anything would come of it, but fast-forward a few months, and I was dancing in front of an audience for the first time since my accident. It was a huge breakthrough for me.
I realized that I could still be the professional dancer I wanted to be. I just had to adjust how I went about achieving those goals. So when my dad approached me with the idea of starting a foundation, I was all in. A year later, we started the E.P.I.C. Project (Empowering People In Chairs) to help people like me embrace their new life and fulfill their dreams. Five years later, it's still going strong and I'm able to use the platform to share my own story and educate other teens about distracted driving.
E.P.I.C. has also opened so many other doors for me, including The Rollettes Dance Company, which I head along with five other women who are all in wheelchairs because of spinal cord injuries. More recently, I became an ambassador for the Wings for Life World Run to help raise awareness and funds for spinal cord injury research through their simultaneous running and wheelchair race. Through this experience, I got the opportunity to create Homecoming, a video by choreographers Josh Killacky and David Moore-two inspiring individuals that I've looked up to for the past few years.
Through it all, I've realized that dance is dance-whether you're walking or rolling. It doesn't see disability. I'm so lucky that I've been able to create a world for myself where my passion for dance and mission to raise awareness for spinal cord injuries are so intertwined. It wasn't the life I would have envisioned for myself before my accident, but my journey over the past seven years has taught me so much and I don't think I'd trade that for the world.