Liz Ann Kudrna rode her bike 86 miles in one day down the California coast a few weeks ago as part of a fundraiser for the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

“It was awesome,” she said, back in the Bozeman studio where she teaches Pilates. “It’s the farthest I’ve ever ridden.”

The mid-October ride from Santa Barbara to Santa Monica took her about nine hours. “I’m not fast,” she confessed. “Next year I want to be faster.”

Liz Ann Kudrna has been paralyzed from just below her chest down since a Montana rock-climbing accident severed her spinal cord 11 years ago.

She can no longer use her legs. Still, she goes far using her arms, back, head and heart.

For the Million Dollar Challenge fundraiser in California, she powered her reclining hand-cycle down coastal highways, accompanied by two able-bodied volunteer riders.

“I was psyched to be part of the ride and tap into the love of the organization,” she said. “I felt supported. It’s nice to know you’re not out there by yourself.”

That ride is just one example of Liz Ann’s undaunted spirit.

She skis, swims, mountain bikes and for about six years has participated in triathlons.

In the same weekend as her 86-mile Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) ride, she swam half a mile in a rough ocean for one leg of the San Diego Triathlon Challenge.

“One of the cool things about having a disability, there’s all these camps and organizations like Eagle Mount and CAF that will bring you to camp, teach you how to do triathlon, get you equipment and ride with you.”

Molly Hayes, a Bozeman retired nurse who still runs at age 86, met Liz Ann swimming at the Bozeman Swim Center. She was impressed that Liz Ann, training for California, rode her bike up to Hyalite Reservoir — twice in a single day.

“She has the spirit of a Viking woman,” Hayes said. “She’s pretty heroic.”

Liz Ann said she is thankful for what she can do and for the people who have been so supportive.

“I can get out on my bike. Overall I’m healthy,” Liz Ann said. “I have a house to live in, and I’m grateful for the people in my life, and all the people who’ve shown up in organizations.

“I’m really grateful for what I do have.”

Luck of the draw

Mount Cowen, just east of Pray in the Paradise Valley, is the highest peak in the rugged Absaroka Range at 11,206 feet. It’s is a magnet for rock climbers.

Liz Ann Kudrna, who grew up in Salinas, California, loved rock-climbing, mountain biking, skiing downhill and cross-country – doing anything outside.

On Aug. 19, 2008, she and two friends were descending Mount Cowen after reaching the summit. Her friends were ahead and she was zigzagging down through a lot of loose rock, when she tried a cut-off.

She banged on a boulder about as big as she was to make sure it was solid and started to lower herself down. The big rock was solid but the soil underneath was loose and boulder began to fall.

She recalled trying to push the rock away as she fell. She slammed backward onto sharp rocks, and then tumbled down like a rag doll 30 feet, until her friend Joe caught her.

“One thing I remembered after lying there was asking Joe, ‘Can you check and see if my feet are on the ground?’ I couldn’t feel my legs. It felt like they were floating.

“He looked at me. We all realized this was pretty serious.

“I knew my life had changed in that moment.”

Her friend Leslie ran 10 miles to the trailhead to reach cell phone service to call for help. As evening fell, a rescue helicopter appeared, bringing a doctor, but no pain medication. The chopper couldn’t land, so Liz Ann spent a long night on the mountain.

“It was gnarly,” she said.

Years later, giving a Pecha Kucha talk at Bozeman’s Ellen Theater, Liz Ann remembered that night.

“I can still see that full moon light reflecting on the rock face,” she said.

“I had a feeling I better savor the smell of rocks and moonlit alpine sky, knowing I would not likely be in a place like this again. Life had changed for me.”

It was, she said, “just the luck of the draw.”

Back to life

How do you put your life back together after a terrible injury, when being in a wheelchair could keep you from doing everything you love best in the world?

Liz Ann did not give up. She learned to accept help. She made the most of each opportunity to regain what she’d lost.

She felt lucky to spend her recovery at the Craig Hospital in Denver, a world-renowned rehabilitation hospital that specializes in spinal cord injuries.

Every week there, she’d learn different activities, like wheelchair basketball or wheelchair rugby. That showed her how much was still possible.

“In rehab,” she said, “I did as much as I could, knowing I would get a hand-cycle as soon as I could. That would be my thing.”

Returning to Bozeman and her new reality, she started swimming with Eagle Mount, the nonprofit that provides therapeutic recreation for people with disabilities, and that became a big part of her life. Eagle Mount also had a hand-cycle she could use.

At first she could ride the hand-cycle just a few blocks, and then a few more.

“Oh, I can do this, I can do anything,” she thought. “And I’d start to feel good about myself.

“That brings you back to life.”

Sometimes, Liz Ann said, “I feel sorry for myself — mostly I’m grateful for the people who support me.”

She met friends and Eagle Mount volunteers who helped her return to being active in the mountains. Zuzana Gedeon recalled cross-country skiing with Liz Ann, being tethered together.

“She was just adamant about learning to ski – and she was fearless,” Gedeon said. “She’s amazing. … She loves the outdoors, she has to go outside no matter what.”

“She figured out how to navigate outside and doesn’t let anything get in her way – and she drags along people like me,” Gedeon said with a laugh. “I’m a lazy bum compared to her.”

Liz Ann ended up working for Eagle Mount for a few years in its Nordic ski program, riding with developmentally disabled Reach clients in her cross-country ski, a sled with two skis attached that she propelled by double-poling.

A Pilates teacher for more than a decade before her accident, Liz Ann was already an advocate for healthy movement and maintaining a healthy range of motion. She has a poster honoring physical trainer Joseph Pilates on the wall of her studio.

In the 1920s when people with paralyzing injuries were often kept immobilized in hospital beds, she said, “He believed you needed to move in order to heal.”

Today she still teaches Pilates, often to clients healing from injuries.

“After age 30,” she said, “most people have some sort of issue.”

She knows her accident could have been much worse, and mentions that this summer a Gallatin County search and rescue team member died in a climbing accident on Mount Cowen. News reports said falling rocks swept him and another man down the slope.

In her sunlit studio, she sits on a piece of Pilates equipment called the Cadillac, which has a platform and bars on springs that she can use to exercise her arms and upper body. She can stretch out or fold up her useless legs.

She teaches Pilates to single clients and small groups. She pushed her legs over the side of the platform with her hands and slipped easily into her wheelchair, then wheeled over to the door to greet a client.

Liz Ann has not only survived but thrived. She drives her own handicapped-adapted van, shares her home with her cat Hazel, has good friends and her sister Jane’s family lives in Bozeman.

“I got a new mountain bike this year. It’s crazy,” she said. “If I was sitting in my house not doing it, I would be in my grave.”

Before the accident, Liz Ann said, “I was sort of go-go-going, like a lot of people. I’ve met so many incredible people because of being in a chair, so many kind people. You learn a lot going through a traumatic experience – about yourself and humanity.

“I’m the same person” as before the accident, she said. “I’m just more reflective. I think a little more about other people. I’m a little more compassionate and patient. I hope I am.

“I’m learning to ask to for help…. People are usually thrilled to help you.”

Diana Proemm, a recreational therapist, said she started out as Liz Ann’s therapist and became her friend.

“It’s really cool to see her as independent as anyone can be confined to a wheelchair,” Proemm said. “It’s fun to see her determination. Her strength is really amazing, her fight to keep at it. … It’s fun to see her living the dream in Bozeman.”

Liz Ann has used the perspective from her wheelchair to advocate for people with disabilities.

In her 2015 Pecha Kucha talk, she told the Bozeman audience about the importance of universal design – the idea that designing bathrooms, streets and buildings to accommodate people in wheelchairs can make the world a better place for able-bodied people, too.

“This town needs bike lanes to make it safer,” she said. For everyone.

It’s winter now but she’s already talking about entering the Montana Women’s Triathlon next summer, with her 86-year-old friend Molly.

There’s no stopping Liz Ann Kudrna.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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