Judy Siegle: In it I share ten keys that God has given me to meet challenges and live fully even though life might be different than I might have ever planned or expected.
I grew up in Pelican Rapids, MN. Had wonderful years growing up in a Christian family. I was a good kid who was raised in a good home. One thing that was unique to the family was that at the breakfast table Dad would read a devotional from the Bible. So I grew up with faith in Jesus saying prayers at meals, prayers at bedtime, but also during the day just sharing my life with God for as long as I can remember. We had a strong youth program at our church. I had some powerful faith building experiences even as a young person.
I attended a smaller school and was very involved in band and choir, ran track, and was a cheerleader, but basketball was my main sport. I was three years all conference and all state my senior year. I loved the sports aspect.
Then on August 11, 1979 life as I had known it came to a screeching halt when I was in a car accident. I was with a friend coming back from a wedding dance. There was a car of kids from a neighboring town who were out drinking and driving and they ran their stop sign and our cars collided. The two in the back seat were killed. My friend and I were not wearing seat belts and were thrown from the car. He broke several bones but is doing fine today. I ended up breaking my neck, which left me a quadriplegic. I had a concussion and was out of it for the first weeks following the accident. God was in this from the start – obviously things don’t just happen without His knowledge. Because I was in and out of consciousness there wasn’t the sudden blow of being able bodied one moment to all of a sudden looking at a life of dependency on other people.
So I came out weeks later. Initially I was paralyzed from the shoulders down. Weeks later I had arm movement, but no movement in my hands. Most quadriplegics have little to no hand function, with limited arm movement.
As I came out of it I went back to the same belief system that I had before the accident. I had learned that God is going with me and so I thought, “Well, God’s going with me here so, why should I be down? Why should I grieve?” I thought, “I’ll meet this challenge as I have other challenges.” So I went forward. My days were positive, working hard in therapy. I had terrific hometown support. But I was going to go through a struggle, understandably so. My struggle came out at night with difficulty sleeping and nightmares. Weeks passed and I couldn’t understand why I was having difficulty sleeping and it all came down to one particular morning. During my morning occupational therapy session, we would always listen to the Concordia Chapel on the radio. I was supposed to have been a freshman at Concordia College that fall. This particular morning, I don’t even know what was on the chapel but I started thinking about Concordia and the kids, and the books, and the girl’s basketball that I was SUPPOSED to be playing, and here I was in the hospital, struggling to feed myself with adapted equipment. I was totally dependent on my therapists and nurses. That was when reality hit and I broke down crying. I knew I needed to talk to somebody who could tell me how to look at this situation, living the rest of my life from a wheelchair, so I called Concordia’s campus Pastor to the hospital that night. I remember he said, “Judy, there are going to be many more times when you are going to feel frustrated. You are going to feel hurt. You may even feel angry toward God. Believing in God doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to have those thoughts and emotions. But if you can share with God what is going on in your heart and mind, then you can deal with those thoughts constructively.” He told me to imagine God so close that I could beat on His chest with my anger. That visual reminder that God knew where I was at and that I could just let it all out to Him gave me what I needed to keep going forward. I could envision His unconditional love picking me up, holding me tight and reassuring me. That talk totally ended my nightmares. The next day I was back in therapy. No one would have known that anything was different, but I knew, “You know what, you are going to hurt some along the way here, but God is going with you. You are not going this way alone.”
I spent six months in the hospital and then began college as a freshman the next fall. God gave me the hope and strength I needed to meet the challenges of my days. The first years after the accident, I felt a huge sense of loss. I remember wondering if I would ever laugh hard again. There was just this sense that, “I’m different, and things are not going to be the same ever again.” Which was true. I believe that when we share what’s going on in our heart and life with God, we will experience healing over time. Venting my feelings of anger, disappointment, and grief brought healing, because I know I do laugh hard today.
Mercy Hope: So where did you go from there?
Judy Siegle: I really thought that my days in sports were done. What can a quadriplegic do in sports? But I knew how important it was for me to take care of my health, to work out, and to build as much strength as I could. Also, I’d been an athlete prior to my injury, so working out was a big part of my life, in addition to being important for my health – that was more true now than ever before. Also, I was getting some muscle return in my legs. My fingers in my left hand started working. The fingers in my right hand are still paralyzed. I was naturally right handed, so now I’m a ‘lefty’. Muscles started returning in limited degrees throughout my body so I left the hospital after six months with long-leg braces and a walker. At that point in time, the doctors really didn’t know how much was going to come back – they didn’t know that the muscles were only partially getting the connection. Medically I’m considered an incomplete quadriplegic. A complete spinal cord injury would have meant no muscle return to my hands or legs, so I know now how blessed I am to have even the limited muscle strength that I’ve got. I’m very fortunate to have one fully functioning hand and the muscle strength necessary to take care of myself independently today. In the early years I didn’t know what was going to come of my walking ability. I had this faith perspective … I knew that God was going with me, I knew that God was healing me and could heal me completely today even though my walking was, and even is today, very halting. I use my manual wheel chair as my primary means of mobility. I did have a power chair all during my college years and graduate school because the winter weather and the long distances on the college campus were no match for my limited arm strength and endurance. There was no way my arms could have gotten me around for that distance myself.
I have learned some important lessons for life out of my struggle to walk. It was one thing for me to walk in the gym at Concordia for my workouts and quite another when the therapist that I was working with said that I had to start walking in public. I had terrific fear of walking in public and fear of falling. At this point I had gotten to where I could walk for short distances with a cane. With my right hand still paralyzed, I couldn’t hold anything so I got a loop on that crutch which gives me another point of balance. I had this fear that if I hit a rock, or some water, and my cane went I could fall down. So my routine of walking in public as a college student went something like this, I’d drop my book bag off at my desk, park my chair in the hall right around the corner, so I wasn’t walking that great a distance but I was up seeing people eye to eye, walking in public.
I felt like I needed to be using what God was giving me. Plugging this walking in public into my routine as a college student felt so uncomfortable, yet God just gave me the encouragements. I used “My Utmost For His Highest” at that time and I remember one down and discouraging day and just thinking, “God, why am I even doing this? This is dumb to use a power chair and then to walk here and there.” And God was saying to me, through Oswald Chambers, “Draw on Me to take that step. Look to me…” And when I saw that in my devotional that God was saying, look to Me to take that step, and when I saw, “step” or “walk” my ears are gonna perk up because the Lord knew that was what I was struggling with. So I thought, “Wow. God just says to look to Him.” So I’d park my chair and I’d say, “OK, God. I haven’t got the strength to do this but you say to draw on You so here I am.” And off we went. I found as I parked, paused, and offered that prayer I totally overcame my fear of falling and I eventually became more confident in my walking, and being out of the wheelchair.
We now know what we didn’t know then, that I did just have limited muscle return but I learned the lessons of daring to step out. Use what I’ve got – what God has given me. None of us have the same muscle picture, function, the same hand coordination, the same vocal cords. God has created a unique plan and purpose for each of our lives and I just need to be connected with Him, and lay my life before Him and He will use what He’s given me for His glory.
In my book, Living Without Limits I share ten tools that God has given me to meet life’s challenges. I believe that Jesus came to this earth that we might have abundant life. He said, ” I have come that you might have abundant life.” Life to the fullest. Life to the max! Life without limits! Nothing, absolutely nothing has to get us down and keep us down! Sometimes the pressures, the paperwork, the people and the problems can weigh heavy on us. Yet I believe He gives us tools, support, supportive people on the journey, ways of dealing with the emotion that wants to pull us down. That might be goal setting, strategies to move us forward. He gives us humor. The JOY that comes from knowing Him. Even when we are dealing with these circumstances that may be so very challenging, we don’t need to be defeated as we’re going with Him. He’s conquered sin, death and the power of satan, and so nothing has to keep us down.
So in the book I share how these tools that God has given me to live victoriously as I learned to live with this disability have guided me through many human experiences. And they can be tools for anyone who wishes to Live Without Limits. For instance, choosing a positive attitude. Choosing to set my mind on things above. Maybe by reciting Scripture in a challenging situation and how it actually gives me power in that challenging situation. A story that I have shared is a time that I went down to Warm Springs, Georgia for the National Wheelchair Championships. I was getting off the airplane at 10:30 at night and the flight attendant informed me that they had forgotten my daily wheelchair in Minneapolis when they had changed planes. They put me in this complete clunker of a wheel chair that was set up so that I couldn’t even push myself. So I had to ask the airline staff to push me out to the shuttle bus that was there to pick up the wheelchair athletes. I was the last athlete coming in that night and we had another hour’s drive to the training camp. Anyway, the airport staff took me out to the bus so the other athletes would know I was here. Then they brought me back into the airport. Meanwhile as I was waiting in the claims office, they brought up my racing chair and there was a huge crack in the back wheel frame, so now I’m sitting in the claims office filing these reports about these two wheelchairs: one that hadn’t arrived and one that has this broken wheel. I thought, ‘there is no way I am going to be competing in this meet’. But as I sat there I thought back to some Bible verses that I had actually memorized the week before from Psalm 56:3-4, “When I am afraid I will trust in You. In God whose word I praise. I will trust in God and not be afraid.” This certainly wasn’t a life or death situation, but these verses just gave me a calm in my heart. Well, I got out to the shuttle well over an hour later and the other athletes were just furious. Not at me but those airlines. They made comments like, “They are so hard on our chairs. Couldn’t they see what delicate bikes we ride?” They couldn’t believe how calm I was, and they commented on that. I said, “Hey, if this is as big as my problems get, not getting to compete in this meet, I’ll be doing okay.”
The next day the airlines got my daily chair out to the training camp, and it ‘just so happened’ that my wheelchair manufacturers were at this meet, and it ‘just so happened’ that they had the EXACT wheels for my racing chair. My friend calls this “Godcidence” more than coincidence, when God is behind it. So we got the exact wheels and made the switch, I was able to compete and I ended up setting National records at that meet in the 400, 800, 1500, and 5000 meter events. That was cool. That was exciting. But you know, what thrilled me the most was this peace of God that I had in my heart throughout this experience. I knew that I easily could not have been able to compete; life doesn’t always go as we have planned. Stuff happens. And we are in charge of our thoughts. We can choose to get down and discouraged, and let that negative stuff pull us down, or we can say, “You know what, God, You have a bigger plan, a bigger purpose than my own.” So we can hold steady to His promises even when life can be up and down. We can hold steady even when circumstances can seem beyond control.
So I share real practical tools. Tips to choose that positive attitude. To come up with a goal setting plan, and when you have a vision, how to break that down into action steps for today that really will lead us forward.
Mercy Hope: What inspired you to participate as an athlete in the Paralympics? And what was that experience like?
Judy Siegle: It was incredible. It was so funny because my first exposure to wheelchair sports was a sport called quad rugby. I played for the North Dakota Wallbangers. I was the only woman on the team and probably the last one off the bench. Well, actually we didn’t have a bench, but it was such a thrill! It was such a thrill to be back out in sports again using what God had given me. That’s what sports are all about. But it was through quad rugby that I heard about wheelchair racing and ordered my own 3-wheel lightweight chair. As a quad I am gonna be usually one of the slowest racers on the track, or in the race competition because I’m a woman, and as a quad I don’t have as much muscle strength as someone who has a fully normal working upper body. But again, I was so thrilled to be a part of the experiences. To be connecting with able bodied friends who were runners in these races, or whatever, and they’d say, “Judes, let’s go out and run.” So we’d just have a blast doing these different races.
I actually learned the sport from some wheelers in Minneapolis. They said, “Judy, to compete against other quad women you are really going to need to go to the National level.” This athlete in me was still there and was coming to the surface and I wanted to know how I would do against other quad women. So I found out what I needed to do to compete at this level and I got myself to those events, never really dreaming of the Paralympics. The Paralympics is the Olympics for athletes with physical disabilities. It is held in the same city as the Olympics a couple weeks later. It is the second largest sporting event in the world. I was hearing about the Paralympics and I thought, “Oh Lord, is this something that You have in the plan for me?” I didn’t know, but I had learned from my college days about daring to step out, daring to live fully, daring to take risks, and to stretch myself and put my all into life. I found that that is a positive experience REGARDLESS of whether we make it to the race. Because we may not make it to the event. But when we dare to step out in who we are in Christ, with Him we have joy in living. So I decided to go for it. I did the work of finding out the times that I needed to be running to make the Paralympic team. You have to place well at your countries Paralympic trials, and I did that. The Lord just opened those doors and put supports along the way in my own community. This was invaluable because I knew that I couldn’t do this by myself, being this lone wheelchair athlete from Fargo, North Dakota. But God put some supports there, not overnight, but over the years. People to do my wheelchair maintenance work, to set up my training program, (you train a wheelchair athlete like you do an able bodied athlete). The hospital where I work became an official Olympic sponsor in support of me so it helped me with some of the finances. God put the supports along the way that just said, “Go for it. You can do it.”
Atlanta 1996 was my first Paralympics and then I did Sydney, Australia. A real highlight from Sydney was of course, to connect with other athletes from all around the world, but a real highlight was to pray with one of my competitors. I met Annette from Germany in the religious center in Olympic Village one of the first nights we were there. Joni Eareckson Tada was leading worship and she had us break into small groups for prayer and I met Annette and we found out we were both quadriplegic women, we were both competitors in racing, but Annette turned to me before one of our races and said, “Can we pray?” and I said, “You bet” and we put our mitts together and I prayed in English and she prayed in German and out onto the track we went. It was just a really cool memory. Now she beat me – I don’t know what she prayed in German after she heard my prayer in English. J But, I guess we both knew we were winners because we were running the race with Christ. So we had that joy that we shared.
I first met Joni Tada when she spoke at my college as a sophomore when I was just going to college and doing my own thing. I didn’t keep up with her ministry, but then in 1998 I traveled to Romania with Wheels For The World and was totally blown away. I loved connecting with people with disabilities. I had been in the chair myself for about twenty years when I thought, “What is disability ministry?” I didn’t realize that there are a lot of challenges that people with disabilities face that make it hard for them to feel a part of the Body of Christ, as sad as it is to say. I’ve done Joni and Friends family retreats over the years around the country where they will bring me in as part of the leadership team. Joni is just incredible and she is the one who just a few years ago said, “Judy, you need to write a book” and I just felt like that was Godly wisdom so I proceeded with the book process at that time.
Mercy Hope: Judy you are a truly inspiring individual! Thank you so much for sharing your time with me. Many people will be inspired as a result.
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