Memphis Teen Finds Community in Adaptive Sports After Sustaining a Spinal Cord Injury
Avery Downing, 19, plays wheelchair basketball and tennis at the University of Alabama.
Avery Downing, 19, arrived at the University of Alabama in fall 2017 and headed straight to a wheelchair basketball practice. The Memphis, Tennessee, native hadn’t played sports since 2012 when she fell from the uneven bars during gymnastics practice in seventh grade. She sustained a complete T-11 spinal cord injury that paralyzed her from the waist down.
By the spring of 2018, Avery was named to the national wheelchair basketball tournament’s Women’s All Rookie Team. She also played wheelchair tennis for Alabama – the 2018 national champs.
“I love sports,” says Avery, who was a Level 9 gymnast (10 is highest). “But between the time of my injury and going to college, I didn’t have the opportunity to play anything. I’d wanted that for so long, so I jumped right in.”
Only 13 when she fell, Avery was transferred to Shepherd Center from Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis. Her rst day was her hardest.
“Everything became real at that point,” she says.
Avery soon bonded with other teens in Shepherd Center’s adolescent spinal cord injury rehabilitation program, spending time with them in the therapy gym and on outings.
“It was a good community,” she says. “It’s a super hard and weird time, and I’m thankful for having spent that time at Shepherd Center. It made it a little less hard and weird.”
Her desire for that kind of community led Avery to wheelchair sports.
“It reminded me of how everything felt when I did gymnastics,” she says. “I loved that – pushing myself physically, learning new skills, getting better.”
The English major has a 4.0 GPA, traveled to Honduras on a mission trip last year and worked with children with disabilities and their families in summer 2018 in Ghana. She’s still undecided about plans after college, but her sports goals are clear – the Paralympics, in basketball and tennis. “I’ll just keep working at it and see what happens,” she says.
Written by Drew Jubera
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 935 inpatients, 541 day program patients and more than 7,300 outpatients each year.