Hillary Hopkins doesn’t remember much about the accident. She was just 16 years old on that early September morning in 1992 when she and her older sister, Bethany, were headed to a church function near their home in Rome, Ga. It was still dark outside, and Bethany didn’t see the semi-truck as she pulled onto the highway.
In the ICU weeks later, Hopkins, now 31, learned that their car had hit the unlit semitrailer from the side and passed all the way underneath, losing its roof in the process. Her sister didn’t survive the accident. Hopkins was critically injured — her neck, arm and many of the bones in her face were broken.
“They tell me I never lost consciousness,” she says, ”but I don’t remember the first three weeks. I don’t think our bodies let us remember things like that.”
During the months that followed, Hopkins suffered immeasurable pain, grief, frustration and confusion. As she mourned the loss of her sister, she also had to come to terms with her own dramatically altered life. Doctors told her that even though she still had some feeling in her arms and legs, she was technically quadriplegic and would likely spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. “I had so much stuff to deal with,” she recalls. “I was in survival mode.”
As time passed, though, her shock gradually turned to determination — she refused to accept that she’d never walk again. And in the 15 years since, Hopkins has pushed herself to prove her doctors wrong, attending hundreds of physical therapy
sessions, exercising regularly and, most recently, seeking outside expert help.
Her persistence is paying off: With only stabilizing support, she’s now standing on her own two feet again and making strides every day toward walking.
Before the accident, Hopkins was active and driven. At 5 feet 10 inches tall, she played forward on her high school basketball team and spent every spare moment going to camps and practicing her skills. “Basketball was my life,” she says. “I wanted to go to college and play ball.”
The accident forced her to change her expectations. Upon leaving the ICU a month after the accident, Hopkins underwent four months of intense therapy at a spinal-cord-injury clinic in Atlanta, where she relearned basic tasks, like how to shower, get dressed, and transfer in and out of a car. Though she was able to move her arms and hands, she’d regained only slight movement in her right leg and foot, and none in her left.
Within a year, she had learned to maneuver herself into a standing position using her upper-body strength. But improvements stalled. Still, she was unwilling to let her condition define her or leave her dependent on others, and in 1994 she left home to attend Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
By 1998, Hopkins was accustomed to her situation, even if she wasn’t entirely at peace with it. Physical therapy was just another item to check off her to-do list. But when her roommate began complaining about weight problems, Hopkins found herself rankled.
“It bothered me that she complained about something without doing anything to improve it,” she recalls. “And then I realized I was doing the same thing. I decided then that I would get a gym membership and start working out more than I had been.”
With occasional assistance from trainers, she began doing upper-body strength training and cardio workouts, like swimming and handcycling. Even though she didn’t experience any significant improvements in her mobility, she enjoyed exercising hard enough to work up a sweat. “Losing certain abilities made me appreciate what I do have and also the importance of being healthy, being in shape and working out,” she says.
The Right Routine
In May 2007, Hopkins met Steve Toms and John Cottrell, team members at the Life Time Fitness in South Valley, Utah. Impressed with Hopkins’s determination, they had ideas about a different approach to exercise that they believed could truly make a difference in her mobility. They began asking questions, and after listening to her story, they developed customized, complementary regimens that would relax tensed muscles, activate those that hadn’t been used in years and build strength.
Cottrell, a yoga instructor and coordinator of the club’s LifeStudio, taught Hopkins breathing exercises that helped open her chest. He also introduced her to back arches and adapted yoga positions, which improved her flexibility, strengthened her core and improved her posture.
Meanwhile, Toms, the personal-training department head at the time, began doing massage work that relaxed the muscles in Hopkins’s glutes and legs, as well as the reciprocal muscles linked to those areas. Once those muscles were relaxed, Hopkins could concentrate on flexing and unflexing her long-dormant muscles.
At first, she could only activate the muscles immediately after the massage, but she could soon do it on her own at home. Within weeks, she began standing up (with Toms’s assistance) and doing a few 90-degree squats.
Just two months into training, Hopkins could get out of her chair and do 40 squats with only stabilizing assistance. “I would never have thought that I would see results this quickly, but I improved more working with John and Steve than I ever did on my own or with other trainers,” she says.
Hopkins’s progress has been gratifying for Toms, too. “There’s no one who’s inspired me more than Hillary,” he says. “Getting her out of her chair is a life-changing thing.”
The Road Ahead
Hopkins knows that it will take more than daily workouts to achieve her dream of one day returning to the basketball court, but she wants to be prepared for whatever happens next.
“It might take a personal miracle, or it might take a cure for spinal-cord injuries,” she says. “All I know is that I’m not going to stop. I can only keep doing what I’m doing.”
If the progress she’s made in the last year alone is any indication, Hopkins is just getting started.