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January 25, 2013

Falling Toward Grace

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The kind of personal growth Hollekim experienced requires what researchers call a "seismic event" so devastating that it compels a re-evaluation of one's core beliefs. And, in doing so, the survivor reconstructs his or her sense of self, becoming a better, wiser person in the process. You hear human-interest stories like it all the time on TV (the battle-scarred soldier who decides to devote his life to helping others, for example) and in pop culture (if he had never witnessed the death of his parents, Bruce Wayne would never have become the defender of Gotham). Growth is the archetypal hero's journey. There's still pain and suffering, of course — studies show that those with the worst cases of PTSD report the most growth — but it usually results in a hard-won sense of wisdom, a fuller life lived with more meaning.

Hollekim's fall inspired an honest, occasionally brutal assessment of how self-centered she had been before the accident. She rarely considered how the risky sports she pursued affected those around her, how her adrenaline-junkie fixes made it hard for her to forge real relationships. Now, Hollekim says, she is a more attentive and responsible friend and daughter. A successful motivational speaker, she relishes engaging with those who connect with her story. It gives her harrowing accident and grueling recovery a purpose. "I have grown a lot. I am wiser in my decisions and appreciate what I have," she says. "I am thankful it happened."

Three years after her accident, Hollekim was walking but still in constant pain. She had trouble getting into and out of a car. The climb to her fifth-floor walk-up apartment was excruciating. She had been on painkillers for so long that she had to go through detox twice. Finally, she entered the Red Bull Diagnostic and Training Center, a cutting-edge facility for athletes recovering from injury, just outside Salzburg, Austria. For the next year, she relearned the mechanics of walking. Everything she did there hurt, yet her doctors were amazed by her perseverance. Under their watch, her muscles began to heal and function properly. And over time, the pain began to dissipate and the limping all but disappeared. Finally, she was able to set her sights on her real dream: to get back on skis. She could not have picked a more perilous goal — her legs are held together by so many plates and screws that an X-ray of them might resemble the bargain bin at a hardware store. A simple fall could have put her back in the hospital. But there was no dissuading her.

In January of 2010, Hollekim visited Hemsedal, a large ski resort in Norway, accompanied by friends and family. The mountain opened an hour early just for her. It was dark, two hours before dawn, and the trails glowed under artificial light. Hollekim was seated on the ski lift with her father and a camera crew documenting her run. A gaggle of friends gathered at the base of the hill, including Hollekim's mother, who herself had endured years of rehab so she could walk again. Hollekim, terrified that her legs would fail her, took a deep breath as she eased off the lift. Then she dug her poles in and forged ahead.

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