As a high schooler, she didn’t imagine she would have written a book, started a nonprofit, starred in a reality show or danced in Kelly Clarkson’s music video by the age of 23. She also didn’t imagine she’d accomplish all of it in a wheelchair.
In February 2010, a 17-year-old Chelsie took a ride home from a party with friends – without knowing her driver was drunk – and ended up paralyzed. She doesn’t remember anything from the time she saw the tree until she woke up in the hospital unable to feel anything below the waist.
She describes her injury as having her upper body disconnected from her lower body. For Chelsie, a lifelong dancer with a dream to dance professionally, losing the use of half of her body was initially devastating. In those first few days, Chelsie recalls asking her father “What could I possibly do if I can’t walk? Why would this happen to me?”
Her dad said that he didn’t know but maybe this happened to her so that she could help other people. From that point on, she says, she knew she could overcome and live life again.
After 51 days in the hospital learning how to do everything – from trying on her shoes to taking a shower – without the use of her lower body, Chelsie left the hospital and entered a whole new world at 42 inches high.
Chelsie couldn’t walk, but she could still dance. Without her legs, she had to focus on what she had – her arms, her chair – and how to make it work with music the way she wanted it to.
Not even a year after her injury, Chelsie joined a wheelchair dance team. She has danced on multiple teams since, both able bodied and not, and achieved her goal of starting her own dance team in 2012. Without the support of her teammates, Chelsie says she would not have been able to accomplish this dream. Her teammates are an inspiration to others and to one another, she says. “Imagine a group of girls who are building each other up and breaking down stereotypes,” she says. The team is able to show people that having a disability doesn’t mean you can’t be independent or do the things you love. “Dance is dance – no matter your ability.”
Chelsie, along with her father Jon, founded the Walk and Roll Foundation, a nonprofit aimed to educate teens about the dangers of distracted and drunk driving, gun violence and bullying through their distinguished speaker program, bring awareness about ability and disability through their dance team performances and provide support and resources to those affected by a disability.
Chelsie’s work also caught the attention of the people behind “Push Girls”, the SundanceTV reality show following young women living life to the fullest in wheelchairs. Chelsie calls the encouragement she’s received from her fellow “Push Girls” incredible and the network of support amazing. Chelsie met some of her closest friends from being on the show, and families with a recently paralyzed loved one have reached out saying what an impact her story made.
An important part of the Walk and Roll Foundation’s work is to assist those with spinal cord injuries to have the resources and support they need. Chelsie says it took her a good year and a half to adjust to life in a wheelchair and recommends that anyone with a new injury meet somebody in a chair they have a connection with and learn from them.
Chelsie says that it was because of her chair that the choreographer for Kelly Clarkson’s latest music video reached out to her. The video for “Invincible” highlights several strong women fighting against setbacks, and the choreographer found Chelsie on social media when knew they wanted a dancer in a wheelchair.
“It’s been my lifelong dream to dance professionally and in music videos, and to think that my chair gave me that opportunity is pretty amazing,” she says.
A line in the song perhaps perfect to describe Chelsie, Kelly sings, “I can take on so much more than I had ever dreamed.”
Though Chelsie has a positive outlook, she says she sometimes still thinks about how life would be easier if she could get up and walk. “I do have my moments, but they don’t last long,” she says. “I don’t have time to sit and dwell on something I can’t change.”
“I still have that want and thirst to walk again, but I won’t let recovery get in the way of living,” she says. For Chelsie, her disability has provided the ability to live an incredible life. “It’s so much greater than anything I would have done when I was walking.”
Chelsie says the way the accident has affected her life today is bittersweet. If she weren’t paralyzed, she imagines by 23 she might have graduated college and started to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. Like many people her age, though, she says she would have been building someone else’s dream. Her accident forced her to grow up much faster than your average twentysomething and focus on what she really wants to do. “Now, I’m building my future, my career,” she says. “It motivated me to do more with my life.”
Looking toward the future, Chelsie wants to grow the Walk and Roll Foundation to be a nationally known nonprofit helping give resources to people in wheelchairs and educating the public on how it’s possible to live a full life in a wheelchair. The foundation looks to expand their speaking program and continue showing the world all abilities of dance with their dance team. Chelsie, of course, will keep dancing and proving that she can.
“I don’t want anyone to think they can’t do something because they’re in a wheelchair,” she says. “I’m living proof of that.”