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Peachtree Road Race Inspires Young Man to Become Wheelchair Athlete

Former patient Jeremy Maddox has the drive to conquer and compete.

Jeremy Maddox will never forget the Fourth of July in 1998.

Just 16 years old, he was sitting outside Shepherd Center that morning, watching men and women roll their racing chairs up Peachtree Road in the Wheelchair Division of the Peachtree Road Race. Jeremy, too, was in a wheelchair:  He’d sustained a spinal cord injury in a motocross accident a few weeks earlier and was undergoing rehabilitation at Shepherd.

“It was astonishing to me watching them go up that really tough hill,” recalls Jeremy, now 32. “It showed me what you could do in a wheelchair, and it made me want to do it.”

Six years later, he did do it:  Jeremy completed his first Peachtree Road Race in the Wheelchair Division. He has since competed in races ranging from 5K to marathons and now averages 20 races a year.

He also works full time for a company he co-founded, competes in waterskiing competitions, pilots airplanes and volunteers at Shepherd Center.

“I haven’t come across anything yet that I can’t do from my wheelchair,” he says. “It just takes some time and effort to find a different way.”

Jeremy’s relationship with Shepherd Center began with the eight weeks he spent at the hospital following his accident, which injured his spinal cord at the T-4 level and left him paralyzed from the waist down. After rehabilitation, he resumed classes at Jackson County High School in Jefferson, Ga., and later graduated from the University of Georgia.

He returned to Shepherd after college to join the Center’s basketball league – an experience that whetted his appetite for competitive wheelchair sports.

“It’s more than a league; it’s a whole culture,” Jeremy says. “The guys taught me so much about living and life, and what you can do in a wheelchair. I thought, ‘If these guys can do this, I can do this.’ It was my first experience of peer support after the accident.” He also joined Shepherd’s wheelchair racing team, of which he is still a member.

Aside from the camaraderie and support he finds from participating on teams, Jeremy says participating in competitive sports has built a platform for him to reach out to others and raise awareness in the community about disabled athletes and those with disabilities, in general.

“My injury has allowed me to put a positive face on disabilities,” Jeremy says. “In the airports, people will ask me about my racing chair, which starts a conversation. They see me being independent and active with a positive attitude. It’s hugely encouraging to others.”

While competitive sports helped drive Jeremy’s transition to a new life, he is quick to credit Shepherd Center for helping him develop a “never say never” attitude. “Shepherd doesn’t treat the injury; they treat the person,” he says. “When you’re there, you can see that the people who work there have a true interest in seeing people succeed.”

He also shares that positive attitude with Shepherd Center patients as a peer supporter. “It’s the easiest way to give back to the organization that has helped me so much,” he says. “I can share my experiences, my successes and failures, just like the people in the sports program supported me. I show them photos of me being involved, and it gives them comfort. I tell them, ‘Life isn’t over. It’s just starting a new chapter.’”

In 2012, Jeremy decided to take on a new challenge – waterskiing. He attended an adaptive waterski clinic sponsored by Shepherd Center and fell in love with the sport. He started competing in slalom, ski jumping and trick events, eventually entering the U.S. Disabled Waterski Nationals, where he went up against athletes from across the country.

At the competition, he was shocked to hear his name called to represent the U.S. team in the World Championships.

“I knew I’d done well, but I wasn’t expecting it,” he says. “It was a tremendous honor and privilege.” Jeremy was part of the 12-member team representing the United States in the 2013 Disabled Waterski Championships in Milan, Italy – a team that captured the gold medal.

Outside the sports arena, Jeremy took his need for challenge and adventure to the sky. Through Able Flight, a nonprofit organization that helps people with disabilities learn to fly free of charge, Jeremy earned his pilot’s license. A few years ago, he had the opportunity to fly to Haiti with Able Flight’s founder, Charles Stites, to deliver wheelchairs to a hospital there.

Whether he’s flying in the air, skiing in the water or rolling down the road, Jeremy maintains that you get back from life what you put into it.

“I’ve been on the world stage competing against the best athletes in the world,” he says. “People don’t get to that status without sacrifice. All the good things in life take time, effort and energy, whether you’re in a wheelchair or not.”

Written by Sara Baxter
Photos by Louie Favorite

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.