MIDVALE — Gates Hunsaker has always been an active person, living life to the fullest.
But that way of life would be challenged in April of 2011 when Hunsaker became paralyzed from the neck down.
“I was snowboarding and I did a back flip over a river,” said Hunsaker. “I landed in the water and couldn’t feel my legs from there.”
Hunsaker says the most difficult days of his life were the days when he was confined to a hospital bed.
“I had so much taken away from me,” said Hunsaker. “It really did feel like you were locked in jail. I would wait for them to open the doors and I’d sit outside with a couple seconds to myself and get away.”
As time went on, Hunsaker began missing being active and playing competitive sports. Hunsaker decided he didn’t want the wheelchair to stop him.
“Even though I got hurt I’m still an athlete,” said Hunsaker. “The wheelchair hasn’t slowed me down.”
“Being able to break into sports has played the biggest part of my recovery,” said Hunsaker. “To be able to be active and be as physical as I was in football has been good for me.”
Not only have sports been therapeutic for Hunsaker, they also have been emotionally beneficial in meeting other people who have experienced paralysis.
“It’s really hard (to make) connections with people,” said Hunsaker, “but when I came across wheelchair rugby it was really cool to get around a bunch of guys who share the same interest and who’ve been through the same trials as you.”
Porter Hancock, one of Hunsaker’s teammates, says he relates to Hunsaker in many ways.
“It was very pivotal for me to find a sport and get competitive again,” said Hancock. “Being paralyzed was devastating for me, but it’s been great finding a physical outlet for me.”
Casey Black is the team’s coach. Black is the only one on the team who does not have a spinal cord injury but decided to coach nearly a decade ago because of the fulfillment it brings him.
“I’ve noticed (wheelchair rugby) builds friendships almost better than other sports,” said Black. “Other sports you have people from different backgrounds, but here everyone is here for the same reason. It’s amazing to watch how guys can come in from a life-changing event and really help get each other back on track with their lives.”
In addition to wheelchair rugby, Hunsaker says he is grateful for his friends and family for helping him get to a good place in life.
“Family means a lot to me (as well as) my wife, Savannah. She means the world to me. She puts up with me and not only is able to handle living with someone with a spinal cord injury, she loves me as a husband. She makes me feel like she forgets the situation I’m in. That takes a really big heart and a special type of person to love someone that unconditionally.”
Hunsaker says he believes in focusing on the future and not the past.
“No matter what happens in your life, you can either choose to lay down and let the waves drown you or you can fight back.”