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Life After Injury: Empowering Athletes Through Sports

Shepherd Center sports programs promote a healthy, active lifestyle for people with disabilities.

Yvette Pegues has been afraid of water her entire life. Because of that, she never learned how to swim. So it’s pretty amazing that Yvette completed a triathlon – in which she had to swim – this summer. It’s even more amazing given that Yvette lives with both a spinal cord injury and a traumatic brain injury and, as a result, is paralyzed from the waist down.

So how does someone go from being overcome with fear to participating in a triathlon? By attending a Shepherd Center sports clinic, part of the hospital’s extensive recreation therapy program.

Six years ago, after experiencing partial paralysis and severe pain on her left side, doctors discovered Yvette had a genetic disease called Arnold-Chiari malformation in which the brain tissue extends into the spinal cord. During surgery on her brain to repair the condition, she became paralyzed at the T-10 level. To recover from the surgery, she received treatment at Shepherd Pathways, Shepherd Center’s post-acute brain injury program.

In the years since her surgery, Yvette had been trying land activities on her own to maintain her physical health. But when Gustavo Duran-Monge, MS, CSCS, a sports specialist in Shepherd Center’s Recreational Therapy Department, told her about the paratriathlon workshop, she decided to try it.

“When they put me in the water, I was holding on to Yvette Tisdale (Shepherd Center aquatics specialist), so tightly that my finger nails were digging into her arm,” Yvette recalls. “But she calmed me down and just encouraged me to trust her. Thirty minutes later, you couldn’t get me out of the water.”

During the workshop, Yvette also learned how to pedal on a handcycle and propel herself in a racing wheelchair. The next day, she completed her first paratriathlon.

Exposing patients and community members to the possibilities of adaptive sports is the job – and passion – of Duran-Monge and colleague Matt Edens, CTRS, sports teams coordinator at Shepherd Center. They help patients find sports they are interested in – whether they participated before their injury or are looking for another sport to play – and provide them with the resources they need to accomplish their goals.

Shepherd Center sponsors one of the largest adaptive sports program in North America with 11 sports teams – from quad rugby to basketball to swimming and racing. The program allows individuals with physical disabilities to participate in sports on a recreational or competitive level.

“We offer sports at all skill levels from novice to elite athletes,” Edens says, “Some teams – like basketball – have several divisions.”

Edens says they have approximately 100 athletes who compete on a competitive level, including some who have qualified to represent the United States in the Paralympic Games. Shepherd Center teams and individuals have won national and international competitions.

All team members practice together, regardless of their skill level.

“The newer athletes learn from the pros,” Edens says. “It is wonderful to have that level of diversity. The new athletes are inspired to continue to push themselves.”

To participate on a Shepherd Center sports team, it is not necessary to have been a patient. Community members with disabilities are also welcome. Participants include people with spinal cord injuries, spina bifida, multiple sclerosis and amputations. Some people who start out by learning a skill in a clinic graduate to joining a sports team later, Edens notes.

Both Duran-Monge and Edens meet with people interested in participating in sports and then make recommendations based on their interests. They encourage clients to try more than one sport to get a cross-training effect. Duran-Monge usually meets with patients during their stay at Shepherd Center, while Edens meets with former patients who have returned to their communities.

“The goal is to expose them to ways to maintain a healthy lifestyle,” Duran-Monge says. “We show them options, how to use the equipment needed and empower them to do it. Some don’t think they’ll ever be able to do sports again. This opens their eyes to a whole new world.”

Duran-Monge oversees clinics in kayaking, hiking, tennis, handcycling, archery and golf, just to name a few. All the equipment is provided, and participants are shown how to use it. Five to six clinics are held throughout the Southeast each year, in Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Alabama. He tries to choose sites outside of a hospital setting, such as community recreation centers and state parks.

“We want people to enjoy life and not have to be connected to the hospital all of the time,” he says. “The thinking is to introduce participants to groups and facilities in the community so they can become aware and use the resources available to them in their own communities.”

Two weeks after her triathlon, Yvette was back at another skills clinic – this time trying her hand at waterskiing. She also plans to participate in Shepherd Center’s adaptive golf event and a snow ski clinic in Colorado this winter.

“Shepherd Center has opened me up to the world of adaptive sports,” she says. “I never even dreamed I would be able to do so much post-injury. It gave me the confidence, improved health and the feeling of pride you get when you push yourself to accomplish a goal, and the freedom of moving past the fear to live forward after a life-changing event. I am much more active now than I was before my injury!”

Shepherd Center is thankful to the donors who make Shepherd Center sports and recreation therapy programs possible. To learn more and contribute, please visit

Written by Sara Baxter
Photos by Louie Favorite and courtesy of Yvette Pegues

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.