At 16-years-old, Robbie Parks was known for being a wild child until a near-fatal car accident turned his life upside-down. Tragically, the accident left him partially paralyzed due to a C-7 spinal cord injury. After months of demanding physical rehabilitation, Robbie came to a realization: life was going to be different, but it could still be just as fulfilling – if not more – as it would have been before his accident. Armed with this new perspective on his life, Robbie became involved with the Adaptive Sports and Adventures Program (ASAP) at Carolinas Rehabilitation. ASAP allowed him to rediscover his passion for athletics without the restrictions of his disability. He joined the rugby, hand-cycle and water ski teams and was eventually selected to compete on the USA Adaptive Water Ski team, making him one of only 14 athletes who represent the United States in the world competition. For Robbie, being a member of the team is a “dream come true.” Now, he shares his story in the hope that it will inspire others who may be facing similar challenges.
Atrium Health Foundation: Your journey is truly incredible. How has your life been changed by Carolinas Rehabilitation and ASAP?
Robbie Parks: I have been fortunate with being involved at Carolinas Rehab and ASAP to meet hundreds of people through volunteer efforts and competition. Some of these relationships have positively shaped and even changed directions in my life that I would never have had the opportunity to experience otherwise. After more than 15 years, I am still motivated to talk with a person experiencing a new injury or physical challenge because I learn as much from them as I hope they can learn from me.
AHF: Who has been most impactful to you on your journey?
RP: A family friend, Jimmy Beck, was in a wheelchair long before I was. After my accident, he would take the time to drive out to my home, load me into his van, and bring me to basketball practice. I really had no interest in playing at that time, but he taught me that life goes on and you can overcome losing the ability to walk. It took a few years, but I eventually realized that what Jimmy did for me, I could try to do for others. I then dedicated my time to helping people see the other side of life after injury and to realize that life’s opportunities are wide open if you just try. Jennifer Moore and ASAP have also been integral to my journey by offering equipment, training and physical support to me and countless others who are transitioning from rehab back to “normal” life.
AHF: You have now joined the staff at ASAP – congratulations! Are there other ways that you have continued to be an advocate for the disabled?
RP: I have been affiliated with and used ASAP as a resource for myself and others learning to overcome physical challenges since the late-90’s. I have been very fortunate to have found success on the ASAP Hand-cycle, Rugby and Water Ski teams. I continue to play rugby and hand-cycle and serve as the coach, equipment builder and boat driver for the Water Ski team. Nothing is better than taking someone out on the water and seeing their huge smile when they realize a physical challenge does not stop them from skiing or accomplishing anything else they want to do!
AHF: You are a member of the USA Adaptive Water Ski Team and are an active participant in local wheelchair sports. What lessons have you learned from these experiences?
RP: Being on all the different teams over the years has provided me with a wealth of information for daily living and given me lifelong friendships. It has also taught me the importance of physical fitness and a healthy lifestyle. I was told just after leaving the ICU 36 years ago that I was being transferred to a nursing home because my life expectancy was less than 10 years. I was supposed to die from kidney failure and pressure sores. Thanks to adaptive sports, I have not had to deal with either of those issues.
AHF: What advice do you have for others facing life-altering challenges?
RP: Understand that life will be altered and possibly difficult, but the more you put into your recovery the better it gets. I haven’t found anything I could not do since my accident once I made the decision to put forth the effort and make it happen.
Robbie continues to serve others who are experiencing new challenges through ASAP. He also continues to train and compete as a member of the USA Adaptive Water Ski team. “My philosophy on life is to give back,” Robbie notes. In keeping with this philosophy, he dedicates his spare time to repairing wheelchairs and teaching other people with disabilities how to ski and ride a handcycle. He adds, “I’ve had a lot of people step up and help me get to where I am now. I do what I can to mentor those with new injuries and show them that there is still life out there.” Robbie is truly a shining example of how one can turn tragedy into triumph.
Join Robbie and the ASAP team as they ride from Charlotte to North Myrtle Beach in the annual Cycle to the Sea ride on April 25-27, 2019. This event brings together hand-cyclists, bikers, and supporters on a 3-day, 180-mile trek to raise funds for the Adaptive Sports and Adventures Program at Carolinas Rehabilitation. Join a team, sign up to ride as an individual, or contribute today at CycleToTheSea.org.