Park Gym Paralympian

May 1, 2014, Department, by Samantha Bartram

Jennifer French’s snowboarding accident didn’t diminish her commitment to health and fitness , and a nearby outdoor adaptive gym helps to support that dedication.  Imagine enjoying a sunny day on the slopes, sliding down the side of a mountain on your snowboard. One moment you’re feeling free and in control — the next, you’ve hit a patch of ice and careened into a stand of trees. That’s the last thing entrepreneur, paralympian and quadriplegic Jennifer French remembers before waking in a hospital bed to learn she’d suffered a severe spinal-cord injury. “At that point, your life just stops,” French says — but only for a time. Today, French is a role model to thousands of people of all ability levels, from her Olympic sailing fans to the folks she trains with at her neighborhood park’s adaptive outdoor gym. 

In 1998, when French worked for one of the many dot-com startup companies that fed the tech boom, her motto was “work hard, play hard.” Her company had just gone public, and to celebrate, “Two dozen of us rented this slope-side house for the weekend to snowboard and have fun,” French says. This type of fast-paced recreation was a big part of French’s life. She and her then-boyfriend, now her husband, frequently went wind surfing and boating up the coast of New England, where the pair lived at the time. But, after her accident, French’s active pursuits were put on hold in favor of mastering tasks she previously took for granted. “You have to relearn everything,” she says.

“Brushing your teeth, getting out of bed, driving — there was a big learning curve for all that. At the time [I was going through my physical therapy], I was also introduced to adapted sports and therapeutic recreation through Northeast Passage out of the University of New Hampshire.” There, French saw the world of active recreation reopen to her, along with the realization that with work and dedication, she could regain much of the mobility she previously enjoyed. 

In 1999, French underwent surgery to implant a Functional Electrical Simulation (FES) neural prosthetic system, which would allow her to stand and even walk short distances. She and her husband moved to Ohio to take part in clinical trials for the implants, and in 2001, they moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, where they currently reside. Nearby Azalea Park marks a longstanding stop in her journey toward health, fitness and increased mobility. There, an adaptive fitness zone, courtesy of Greenfields Outdoor Fitness, offers an array of high-quality gym equipment that French can use from her wheelchair. “Typically when those of us in wheelchairs go to a traditional gym, there isn’t much equipment for us to use,” she says. “Mostly all that is available I could have at home — free weights, Thera-Bands, medicine balls… Accessibility is a huge issue.” 

So impressed was French with this innovative approach to fitness that she became Greenfields’ spokesperson in 2013, and today she serves on a local volunteer committee to advocate and raise funding for other accessibility projects in her city. For Greenfields, scoring such a perfectly appropriate spokesperson was quite a coup. “Aside from her fantastic personality, Jennifer’s determination and courage should serve as an example to everyone,” says Sam Mendelsohn, president and CEO at Greenfields. “Jen’s accomplishments are an inspiration to a nationwide community of people with mobility impairments, and she is a vocal proponent of an active lifestyle for people with disabilities.”

One of those accomplishments to which Mendelsohn refers is, of course, French’s part in winning the U.S. a silver medal in sailing at the 2012 London Paralympics. “It wasn’t until I moved to St. Petersburg that I got introduced to sailboat racing, but I caught the bug and now I’m forever a racer,” French says. “[Competing in the Paralympics was] the experience of a lifetime. It’s surreal and a fantastic experience to bring the world together in that way.”

These days, a great deal of French’s time is spent working as executive director and CEO of her company, Neurotech Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving education about and access to neurotechnology for people with impairments. She also devotes much of her spare time to leading “warrior sailing camps.” “We bring in wounded, ill, and injured veterans and active-duty military personnel, and take them through a three-day intensive course. They go from never being on a sailboat to racing in three days,” French says.

“It’s fantastic — we’re teaching these men and women a skill and giving them a new level of independence and teamwork. Being on the water is very therapeutic…. One thing I love about sailing is we can compensate for my abilities on boat. Once we’re out on the water, we’re all the same.”

Samantha Bartram is the Associate Editor of Parks & Recreation Magazine.