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Paralyzed Appalachian Trail hiker shares story with Wilton youngster

FARMINGTON — Stacey Kozel crawled most of the last mile to the summit of Mount Katahdin on Oct. 9 to end her 2,200-mile solo hike from Georgia to Maine. 

The Appalachian Trail hiker, 41, of Medina, Ohio, is paralyzed from the chest down. She came to Java Joe’s on Monday to share her story with 6-year-old Grace LaPoint of Wilton, who has spina bifida.

Kozel said she is the first paralyzed person to hike the trail. Like LaPoint, she uses a wheelchair when she doesn’t have on her braces.

Wearing C-braces — computer-controlled knee, ankle and foot braces — Kozel started hiking the trail alone March 24 in Georgia and reached the summit of Mount Katahdin at about 1 a.m. Sunday with a couple of friends by her side.

“It was pretty rough,” she said Monday. “I was cold and shivering and kept dropping my poles. But it was people like Grace and her Aunt Kerri (Podgurski) who helped push me along.”

She added, “The worst day on the trail was better than a day in the hospital.”

During a dance class, LaPoint told her aunt she wanted to stand up, dance and twirl like everyone else. Podgurski started researching bionic legs and came across Kozel’s story. CNN ran a report on it, Podgurski said. She messaged Kozel through her Facebook page and the two started communicating.

Podgurski wanted her niece to know she can do anything she wants to, there are no boundaries; there is a way.

“She is a happy kid who likes to kayak, fish, dance and use her four-wheeler,” Podgurski said. “Our family wants to make everything available to her. Stacey’s story shows her the possibilities.”

LaPoint added, “I also like to pop wheelies (with her wheelchair) but not in the classroom or in the grocery store.” She is a pupil at W.G. Mallett School in Farmington. 

In March 2014, Kozel woke in a hospital unable to move or lift her head, she said. The combination of lupus and an automobile accident had paralyzed her. She did regain the use of her arms and upper chest, she said.

She loves the outdoors and had always dreamed of hiking the Appalachian Trail. She didn’t want to lose her independence and wanted to show people, regardless of what hardship they are going through, what they still can do, she said.

“Everyone struggles with something, but they don’t have to stop living or give up too soon,” she said. “My mother says I don’t realize I’m paralyzed yet.” 

With no sensation in her legs, Kozel said the braces hold her as she does the work by hip action and gravity. It is all upper body and balance, she said.

Trying to simplify the explanation of how she does it, walking is about falling forward and pushing a foot out to stop the fall, she said. Everyone (walks) that way, she said.

While saying it is a lot simpler than it looks, she admitted that the braces were not meant for hiking the trail, especially the terrain in Maine and other Northeast states. She reverted to an old standard pair for this part of the hike. 

The newer computer-generated braces have undergone some adjustments since she started. It is new technology and the manufacturer is working out the kinks, she said.

Kozel plans to tell her story in classrooms. She had not been telling anyone about the lupus but now is telling everyone, she said.

“There is always someone going through a worse struggle than you are,” she said.

Kozel’s story is available on her Facebook page with stories and photos of her hike, she said. 


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