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Publication Date: Wednesday, January 09, 2002

Healing on the move Healing on the move (January 09, 2002)

Activity, supportive community help injured woman on her road to recovery Activity, supportive community help injured woman on her road to recovery (January 09, 2002)

By Norman Martello

Special to the Almanac

Her opponent flies through the air as she floors him. Molly Hale's aikido partner then throws her a blow, but misses as she grabs him and uses the strength of her arms and torso alone to leverage him down.

Ms. Hale, a 52-year-old Menlo Park resident, recently earned a notable feather in her cap as one of a handful of people chosen to carry the torch on its way to the winter Olympic games in Utah this month. But another achievement plants her even more firmly on the field of distinction: Paralyzed from her waist down, with only partial use of her upper torso, she won her third-degree black belt in aikido.

In the Aikido West studio, or dojo, in Redwood City, Ms. Hale is lowered from her wheelchair onto the mat, and ends her demonstration with a flowing, dance-like breathing exercise, kokyu dosa. She holds the outstretched arms of her female partner as they gently sway, and Ms. Hale pins her to the floor. After the demonstration, the students line up and bow to their teachers, and the dojo rings with the sound of applause. "It's pretty thrilling," Ms. Hale says.

The comeback kid

Molly Hale's optimism makes her seem like the original comeback kid. An auto accident in 1995 left her without movement below her shoulders. After the car landed on its roof, it took rescuers an hour and a half to cut her out of the wreckage. "I was doing a yoga headstand," she remembers. "It was the only way that I could breathe."

Doctors expected that she would have no movement below her shoulders. When she left the hospital after two months, she was unable to do any normal, daily activities on her own. Her hands were folded like claws, but she could use her bicep to bend her elbow.

Slowly she is regenerating her hand function. For more than six years her friend Mike has stopped by her home to massage her hands and arms. Staying active and connected to others are the keys to her recovery, she says.

She attributes her survival to patterns established before the accident: keeping in shape simply by doing daily exercise. "She turned everything into an exercise program," according to her husband Jeramy.

None of her muscle tone was from lifting weights, but from all of the normal activities of everyday living. She would incorporate squats to pick up things, stretch to reach things that were too high, and even exercise at her desk. "Rather than going to a gym to get that kind of workout, I'd just get it through the day," she recalls.

The fitness habit

Ms. Hale made fitness part of her life at an early age. She trained as a competitive swimmer from the age of 5 to age 18. Even now she is in the water six days a week for up to two hours a session, and says she loves the freedom it gives her.

"It took me five months after I was injured before I felt safe in the water," she confides. She swims at the Community Association for Rehabilitation (C.A.R.) in Palo Alto.

It wasn't only swimming that she loved as a girl. When Ms. Hale was growing up in the farming community of Gilroy, a man gave her a pony ride. She was only 3-years-old, and she was hooked.

At 8 years of age, she took riding lessons. "My Dad was sure I'd be killed on a horse, but I kept on riding." She got her own mare when she was 11.

She essentially stopped riding while raising her children, Sebastian, 26, and Kyrie, 22. Working as an architectural designer locally from 1981 to 1992, she claims "houses all over the place." Her busy schedule didn't stop there, as she helped build Jeremy's music label, Sugo Music and Design, from five to 35 employees before things came to a sudden halt.

  Gradual progress

Doctors told her she was paralyzed, but from the inside, she says, she had a different sense of her body _ an aliveness. "I didn't have complete control over it, but my body was twitching," she recalls.

Still it's been a gradual recovery, taking more than five years before she could stretch her body on her own without it curling up. At an aikido summer camp, she had 15 hours of handling: "They stretched out my body, massaging it, even sitting on me, but after 15 minutes, I'd fold up again."

It was hard going back to the dojo, even though at first she went only to observe. "It was a teary time," she says softly. "I used the energetic body of the dojo."

The camaraderie and physical movement around her vicariously reconnected her body with the practice. She attributes not only the art of aikido, but the community of people as a huge part of her recovery.Ms. Hale says she loves to embrace, and is known as Major Hug at the dojo. She was also called Gumby for her flexibility, and it fits her tenacity at bouncing back.

Ms. Hale is passionate about aikido. "If you pay attention in all of the elements of aikido, your body will be strong, healthy and limber. Aikido is a partner practice. There is the art of the technique and the art of falling, and the two combine," she explains.

On the one hand, the defender learns to divert the attacker. When in the role of the attacker, one needs to know how to get to the ground safely. "You can land like a cat, being round, flowing and supple," Ms. Hale says."We're like a bunch of kids on the floor and there's a lot of laughter," she says about their roughhousing without hurting their aging bodies. "There is no such thing as 'I'm bigger or faster than you.' We don't spar; we simply come together and train" in a practice that is cooperative, not competitive.

Ms. Hale is also horseback riding again at the nonprofit National Center for Equine Facilitated Therapy in Woodside, which specializes in physical therapy on horseback for people with disabilities. The first time that she rode after her accident, they put her in a lift over the horse. Her horse, Harley, "was about 15 hands _ that's 5 feet _ a nice buckskin horse," she recalls. "I had side walkers. It was both thrilling and terrifying for someone who was always used to being in control." After three years she graduated, doing a standing assisted mount and reigning her own horse. On a bareback pad, her legs hang long and soft as she rides. She's now looking for a pony to share with another rider.

  New adventures

For 45 years, everything worked harmoniously, almost thoughtlessly _ such as walking, training, dancing and having fun. All that changed so suddenly.

"But association with what's familiar has been so good for me, because the body holds so much information about everything you've done," Molly concludes. For her, continuing with life is dipping back to resources from her past and moving forward into new adventures and personal achievements. A year ago in November, her friend, Robert Kent, nominated her to carry the Olympic torch, and in June she found out that she was chosen. "Pretty thrilling, but I was sworn to secrecy until it was publicly announced in September," she grins.

After her accident, she was given a heavy wheelchair because she was expected to put on weight. As it turned out, she kept getting lighter and lighter chairs, including her newest lightweight Titanium chair. It tilts forward to keep the spine erect and posture correct.

"It also supports my intention to walk," she says casually.


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