Believe in a way back: Completing a triathlon after a spinal cord injury

Jessica Cappella in her sports wheelchair with her cheering section after completing the Queen of the Hill triathlon.

When Jessica Cappella’s book club friends gave her an entry to Mullica Hill’s Queen of the Hill triathlon as a Christmas gift, she thought they were kidding.  Just four years earlier, Jess sustained incomplete paraplegia after removal of a spinal tumor and lost almost all strength in her right leg. At that time, she never dreamed that she would be able to compete in any race, let alone a triathlon.

As a physical therapist at Magee Riverfront, I had the opportunity to work with Jess when she was just learning to walk again. She now gets around with forearm crutches and a long leg brace. Jess, who previously exercised almost daily, wholeheartedly missed working out like she did before her spinal cord injury. She still grieves the many ways that her life has changed. She was forced to resign from her much-loved job as an SICU/ICU nurse. After the injury, getting around every day was not only more physically difficult for Jess, but also brought her significant low back pain.

The Queen of the Hill triathlon is organized by the Mullica Hill Tri Club. The event provides a supportive environment for female athletes of all ages. Jessica’s girlfriends recognized that she needed to do something positive for herself. So they vowed to not only help her train, but also entered themselves as a team to provide her with a buddy for each leg of the sprint distance. The course includes a quarter-mile swim, a 10-mile bike and a 5K run, which she would complete in a sports wheelchair. Jessica was the first athlete in this event to complete the 5K portion of the course at a wheelchair level. 

Training for this event has given Jessica a newfound focus. She says that the process has been good for both her mental and physical stamina. Training seven days a week was not only challenging but also required some problem solving. Because her right leg does not give her much power, she modifies her swimming by placing a children’s floatie on her right ankle so her leg does not sink. Her husband also built an extended bike pedal to support her right leg, and she cycles primarily with her left leg.  Jessica knew that the wheelchair portion of the race would be most challenging for her, as she has tremendous back pain when she leans forward to push. To help her through, Jessica’s best friend held an online fundraiser to purchase her a new lightweight sports chair. 

Nothing makes a physical therapist’s day more than watching a former rehab patient transform into a strong competitive athlete. When I arrived at the event, Jessica whizzed by me on her tandem bike as I heard one of the course directors said, “Hey, didn’t we just see that girl on crutches?” Along the course, I met many friends and family members wearing “Team Cappella” t-shirts with the slogan “Could, Would, Should, DID” on the back of the shirts. 

DID might be an understatement for Jessica’s performance: She placed 27th out of 400 entrants, and completed the event in 1:17:13 with the help of only three limbs! When Jess crossed the finish line, she beamed with pride and accomplishment. Her mother shed happy tears as she mouthed the words, “She did it.” Another friend commented that ‘Beast’ is the only word to describe Jessica. 

Jessica exemplifies Magee’s motto of believing in a way back. In spite of her physical challenges, she is fully determine to face her goals head on. She credits her close friends and family members with her success, “I would not be where I am if it were not for them.”

Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.