MERKEL Texas (KTAB/KRBC)- Heidi Wachtel has been running most of her life. A constant driving force and hobby that kept her always pushing her limits and winning medal after medal.
“I believe grade 5…I started in middle school, ran through high school, ran in college just kinda kept running…I enjoy the solitude, but also, It’s a endurance of almost a higher proportion. You’re pushing your body beyond what it thinks it can do,” said Wachtel.
Whether in her careers as a firefighter and later paramedic, being mother to three sons or her hobbies as a marathon runner and black belt martial artist, no horizon has ever proven too far. But as she was studying to become an international disaster field paramedic in 2020, tragedy struck.
“I was on a trampoline playing with our foster son did some back flips…and I landed on the back of my head….By the grace of God I didn’t break my neck. I actually stretched my spinal cord so much that I tore the inside of it,” said Wachtel.
The accident left her paralyzed from the neck down, doctors told her she would not be able to use her arms or legs ever again. She watched from her motorized wheelchair as all those horizons she used to strive for began to dim in the distance.
“It got a little dark in our house as far as attitudes…We couldn’t see a way out she felt trapped,” said Braden, Wachtel’s husband.
“I got angry, I cried, I looked for a way around it or a way to get a different life,” said Wachtel.
Intent to overcome her diagnosis, Wachtel turned to faith. That’s when she found “Project Walk”, a paralysis recovery center in Houston. There, she was able to regain movement in her upper body and arms. With this breakthrough she enrolled in a para-triathlon camp in hopes of competing once again.
“I was very reluctant. I didn’t want it. I didn’t want to be around other people in wheelchairs. I was an athlete and I was different,” said Wachtel.
But she soon found that she could overcome that mindset, just as she had so much else.
“By the end of the weekend, my husband looked at me and said you’re you again. this is the first time I’ve seen you in two years,” Wachtel recalled.
The knowledge that she and others like her could still be fierce competitors gave her a new respect for those in wheelchairs. Though that was followed by a new perspective on how the world looked at her.
“A lot of people think I’m not capable of things or they think I’m cognitively impaired…They talk to people with me but wont address me directly…Saying oh you cant walk that’s terrible, well not walking is the easy part. It’s all the rest of the stuff that comes with it that’s hard,” said Wachtel.
She is now in training for her first race since the accident. The Buffalo Gap “Walk/Run or Cycle Volunteer Fire Department Fundraiser,” Which she will take on with her new Hand cycle.
“It’ll be my fifth time ever riding this bike, so why not do it in a 12 and a half mile hilly race,” said Wachtel.
But even after overcoming so much, hurdles still find their way into her path daily. As she was leaving classes at Abilene Christian University on Wednesday, the chair lift in her hand operated vehicle broke down for the second time this this year, leaving her stranded and without transportation to the race.
“Financially, it’s huge because that’s not covered by anything, we just had it fixed in March in Lubbock and that was about $5,000 to get just that one part fixed,” said Wachtel.
Even so, she is learning to rely on those around her to help in these unprecedented times.
“That leaves me in a conundrum as far as getting to the race and being able to have that independence, and so we think we have a plan. We’ll see if that comes through,” said Wachtel.
For now though, she is trained on the future and what limit she will chase down next no matter the difficulty.
“If you then could see you now what would you say?” KTAB/KRBC asked.
“Probably like, okay you can do more. If you got to that you can do more, so what are you going to do next, what are you going to keep pushing,” Wachtel responded.