By Chris Prange-Morgan & Dawn Ziegler ~
Twenty-two year old Amber Rangel grew up in Rockford, Illinois, and loved anything in the aquatic environment. An avid swimmer who worked as a lifeguard and swim instructor, Amber was introduced to the thrill of getting behind the boat and skiing… barefoot. Even after she moved to Colorado, she continued to travel back and forth throughout the summers to train for barefoot competitions. She grew to be one of the best barefoot skiers in the nation, winning many competitions and coveted awards in the sport.
On July 27th, 2014, the day started out as a typical one, with the focus on barefoot ski jumping at high speeds over a ramp. This was a skill Amber knew well, but on this particular day in a routine training run, her foot dropped through the water as she was approaching a ramp at 42 mph, careening her head first into the top of the ramp. The impact broke her neck, paralyzing her instantly. Unable to move, her limp body floated face down in the water, leaving her feeling powerless and afraid until she was rescued seconds later by her training crew. She was airlifted to University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison. She was later transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) where she spent four and a half months learning how to navigate her new life as a C5/6 quadriplegic.
A month after she was discharged from rehab, Amber was ready to start looking into some of the adaptive activities she heard about through the RIC. “My mom knew Chris Prange-Morgan [coordinator of Midwest Adaptive Climbing in Wisconsin] who invited me to a rock climbing clinic,” recalled Amber. “After that things kind of spiraled from there. My barefoot buddy, Paul Stokes, introduced me to Travis Lukens who runs Colsac Skiing… At an Adaptive Adventures downhill skiing event, I met Scott Alm and Sarah Arends-Repka who invited me to a Diveheart clinic.”
Amber was unsure about scuba diving though, “I was afraid of the water after my accident. I honestly had no idea how I was going to be able to dive.”
Such an accident would leave many people depressed and terrified of ever returning to the water. Thankfully, Amber’s resilient spirit and love of adventure paired with the specialized programming through Diveheart created an opportunity to embrace her love of the aquatic environment once again.
Diveheart works with individuals who have a variety of disabilities, including physical and developmental disabilities, spinal cord injuries, vision and hearing impairments, amputations, traumatic brain injuries, Post Traumatic Stress Disorders and more. Its mission is to help its participants “Imagine the Possibilities” in their lives.
For individuals like Amber, attending a Diveheart Scuba Experience (DSE) provided an optimal therapeutic environment which was unmatched by traditional land-based programs. Amber states, “My goal is to become as independent as possible and really push the envelope with what I can do. In the water, I’m finding I can control my buoyancy and weightlessly navigate obstacles, which is something I can’t do while in my chair.”
That experience left Amber wanting more. She had her sights set on a Diveheart SCUBA trip to Cozumel, Mexico, but a prerequisite to participating is to become a certified scuba diver. So over the course of the next year, she completed the online certification and required pool dives offered through the Diveheart Adapted Diver training. The Diveheart programs are offered around the Chicagoland area, Atlanta, and Florida.
When Amber qualified for a full scholarship that covered the cost for both her and her sister, Adora, they booked their flights for an October trip to Cozumel.
Amber met with her certified adaptive diving team, Tinamarie Hernandez (Executive Director), Jim Elliot (Diveheart Founder), and buddy divers Dennis Poirier and Beverly Crowe. They jumped right in with getting Amber setup. “Getting the wetsuit on is a tough job,” she laughed. “We did a practice dive in the pool first and then a shore dive to make sure my weights were correct and to run through the checklist of equipment.” They also practiced how to communicate under water by using eye contact, head nods, and hand/arms signals.
During the practice dive, Amber found that using a full mask was the only adaptation she needed to use, “A full mask really isn’t a modification, but people don’t normally use them,” she explained. “It eliminates my concern of losing the regulator and it’s easier keeping water out of my mask.”
“It is important to be able to know your gear, how it works, and how to communicate your needs to whoever is diving with you,” Hernandez states. “Amber knows all of this… she can indicate what a regulator is, how to put it together, what her needs are, and will double-check her buddy prior to even entering the water. There are also commands which are important underwater, and Amber is very skilled and competent in everything. Folks with disabilities really are true divers in every sense of the word.”
Next it was time to get loaded on to the boat and head out to the ocean. This was the hardest part for Amber. “It was a trust issue that I was most concerned with,” she explained. “I had to rely on these people to transfer me from the dock to the boat, secure my wheelchair for the boat ride out where we’d be going 40 mph, and then lift me down to get me in the water.” But her team of buddy divers was specifically trained for working through these situations. “It was a lot of teamwork,” Amber concluded.
Over the course of the week, they would make 10 successful dives in the tropical waters of Cozumel. Each dive was about 40 minutes long and they would reach depths of 75 ft. Each dive was as exhilarating as the next. “We saw all kinds of marine life like turtles, a stingray, lots of tropical fish and a nurse shark,” recalled Amber. Using her arms to move herself up and down was a feeling unmatched to anything she could ever feel on land.
“Cozumel was an amazing experience,” Amber says. “Jim and Tina have such a good connection with each other… I felt totally safe and everything was very accessible.” Her favorite part of the trip was the camaraderie shared over dinner at the end of each day. Having a chance to relive that day’s dive and share the excitement of what freedom really felt like was very special. “It was a real bonding experience.”
The additional benefit of what volunteers experience with the diving program cannot be underestimated. On the trip to Cozumel, Amber and her sister Adora (age 23) were two of 38 folks who had the benefit of being participants, but the volunteers on the trip were inspired by the love and affectionate banter which the sisters had for each other. Hernandez shared, “It was amazing to watch these two gals working together; like Adora helping Amber and the happiness that they have together. During a celebration dinner after a good week of tropical diving, both Amber and Adora were recognized for bringing inspiration and validation to our team. They affirmed that ‘this is why we do what we do’.”
Hernandez states that experiences such as Amber’s should be shared so others with disabilities can come to know the incredible benefits of SCUBA. “The word needs to get out!” she says. While adaptive SCUBA is really growing, the hope is to have it become more mainstreamed and an integral part of therapy for all who would benefit.
At present, Diveheart has been instrumental in beginning to lay the foundation to build an aquatic therapy pool to provide SCUBA therapy to people in the greater Chicagoland area. “This would be the first of its kind in the area, and we are totally psyched about it.” Hernandez says. In the meantime, Diveheart is expanding their programs into areas throughout the world to spread the word about the benefits of SCUBA for people with disabilities. For more information or to become involved, please visit the Diveheart website at www.diveheart.org.