Rise above Tour brings message of hope
July 18, 2008
This week a message of hope rolled through the state.
The Rise Above Tour, a cross-country bicycle and handcycle ride devoted to bringing a message of hope and awareness about spinal cord injuries, completed another leg of their trek across the country with stops in Utah. The tour members hope to raise funds for spinal cord research and to educate people about the benefits of continued rehabilitation and perseverance in the face of a spinal cord injury.
The tour, which started in San Francisco and will end in Washington, D.C., makes many stops along the way to speak to people living with spinal cord injuries, along with rehabilitation therapists and doctors.
Headlining the Utah portion of the trip was Southern Californian Briana Walker, who broke her back and severed her spinal cord six years ago in a traffic accident. Walker turned that accident into a positive in her life by becoming a dancer, model, spokesperson, author and master of many sports — all while confined to a wheelchair.
The tour was originally slated to make a stop at the National Ability Center, but instead organizers decided to combine forces and offer one big presentation in Salt Lake for both Parkites and Salt Lakers to attend. Thursday, the tour invited the National Ability Center participants to join the tour group through Liberty Park in a symbolic ride. The team made a three-lap loop around the park for a 5K ride. a stroke of luck, the Rise Above tour bus was parked next to Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong tour bus and a NASCAR bus at the KOA campsite they docked at in Utah, so those teams joined the Rise Above riders on their ride.
The tour was started by Aaron Baker, who broke his back in a motocross accident. Through hard work and perseverance Baker is now a walking quadriplegic. For years, he worked his way from small movements to riding on the back of a tandem bike to finally riding on a three-wheeled bicycle on his own. It was at this point that Baker decided to take his message of positive focus and determination on the road and spread it to people throughout the country.
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The Salt Lake stop included a talk from Baker and his mother, a discussion on the benefits of continued rehabilitation and visualization through exercise and sports psychologist Taylor Isaacs and a presentation from Walker.
Walker geared her talk mostly to her injury and the benefits of a positive attitude and perseverance, but also has plenty to share about the role of sports and activity in her daily life. She participates in an endless list of sports including triathlons, surfing, wakeboarding, skiing, skydiving, and admits that she even helps some of her quadriplegic friends play quad rugby from time to time.
"Sports really opened up a new world to me," Walker said. "So many times you hear, ‘You can’t do that,’ and I’m like ‘come watch me.’"
Walker said that once she decided that she wouldn’t let others decide her future things began developing for her. She is also on a wheelchair dance team that has performed with Ludacris and other stars and is a model and spokesperson for Overstock.com.
Walker admits that it took about a year before she became the active young adult she is today. She spent a year in a back brace doing rehab, after that she continued to do what she called "wheelchair boot camp" time to prepare her to lead a normal, independent life. Following that, came the bungee jumping, which she admits would probably make her neurosurgeon very angry, but she completed the jump with flying colors. After conquering that fear, she moved on to wakeboarding, skydiving and monoskiing.
The bubbly and positive Walker laughs at the irony of her last name and the fact that she can’t walk and greets everyone with a huge smile. It seems like there is no challenge she can’t overcome with enthusiasm, but she admits she has her bad days.
"I have this list of mantras that go through my head," Walker said. "But I’m still human and we have bad days."
Walker and the rest of the tour plan to ride anywhere between 30 to 50 miles per day as they travel through the United States. She said that the handcycle is challenging because it requires so much arm strength and stamina, but she is determined to complete each ride and even says that she will likely try and convince everyone to ride farther even when it’s not advisable. Walker will travel with the tour to Oklahoma City, Okla. before returning to California for a wedding.
From Salt Lake, the tour will travel to Cedar City where they will embark on another long ride through Bryce Canyon National Park.
"I want to soak it all up," Walker said.
The team will then stop in Colorado and possibly make an appearance at the infamous Sturgis motorcycle festival in South Dakota.
After the Rise above Tour is over, Walker said she will soon be back in Utah. She returns often to do work for Overstock.com, as well as making appearances with First Lady Mary Kay Huntsman’s Power in You program. She also released a book, "Dance Anyway" last year. She hopes that during one of her upcoming visits, she’ll be able to meet with the children that participate in the programs at the National Ability Center.
"Telling kids that they can do anything. That makes it all worth it," Walker said.