Climber earns world championships medal despite spinal cord injury
Rock climbing is scary. It’s even more scary when you’ve had a spinal cord injury. But that didn’t stop Aika Yoshida ’07. Aika can be described in many ways: physical therapist, yoga instructor, and rock climber. She is also a spinal cord injury survivor and a silver medalist in the 2014 Paraclimbing World Championships. A native of Japan, Aika first used rock climbing as a way to meet people when she came to study physical therapy at UIndy.
“Climbing is a physical activity,” she said, “but it’s also a mental activity and a chance to socialize with other climbers.” Those qualities also led Aika to yoga, and to a fateful day on July 28, 2013. It was during an acrobatic yoga practice in Broad Ripple Park that Aika went from caring for patients to becoming one. A missed landing caused her to land on her head.
“I didn’t feel anything below my neck,” she recalled.
Aika was taken to Community Hospital in Indianapolis, where she was and is still employed as a physical therapist. She underwent emergency surgery and was transferred to a rehabilitation center, where she spent a month working on walking and rebuilding muscle strength. It was during her time at rehab that she learned about Paradox Sports, an organization based in Boulder, Colo., dedicated to creating physically adaptive sports communities. Aika learned that Paradox was bringing a rock climbing clinic to Red River Gorge, Ken., in October 2013. Although it was barely two months after her spinal cord injury, she was determined to go, if only to see that rock climbing was still possible. Besides, Red River Gorge had been one of her favorite places to climb before her accident.
“Paradox Sports gave me hope of becoming a rock climber again,” Aika said. “The person who led the program was missing a leg and had a spinal cord injury. Watching someone with a disability climb at that high level was inspiring.”
With the help of her physical therapist, Joel Novak ’07, Aika was climbing again by January 2014, this time at Climb Time Indy in Indianapolis. Aika’s injuries caused weakness in all four extremities, but the right side of her body is most affected. She walks with a limp, has diminished strength in her right arm and hand, and impaired muscle tone and fine motor skills, among other physical challenges. But nevertheless, by spring, Aika had her sights set on a new goal. She planned to compete at the U.S. National Paraclimbing competition in July in Atlanta, Ga., just one year after her accident.
Back in the game
Aika went into Atlanta not having high expectations other than having fun and learning from other adaptive climbers, but she ended up doing well enough to earn herself a spot on the U.S. team heading to the World Paraclimbing Championships in Gijón, Spain, in September. The celebration, however, appeared to be short-lived. Because Aika was not a U.S. citizen, she was not eligible to compete on Team USA. The U.S. paraclimbing officials contacted the Japanese officials and the International Federation of Sport Climbing to get permission for Aika to compete as a member of Team Japan. Approval came in mid-August. One friend told her, “You’re not representing Team USA or Team Japan. You’re representing the human spirit.”
Silver is golden
The competition opened with a qualifying round, after which Aika was tied for first place with another climber. “I was a bit nervous. I just focused on my breathing and what I could do.” she said. “My coach, Johnny Murch, helped me to climb without relying on strength. He taught me to use my momentum. Once I was on the wall, I blocked out the music and the cheering and was in my zone.” In both the qualifying and the medal rounds, Aika made it to the top of the climbing route, a height of about 55 feet. Winners are determined by points; a certain number of points is given for each rock hold. If there is a tie, the judges look at speed. In the finals, both Aika and one other climber made it to the top. Because Aika’s speed was 30 seconds slower than her competitor’s, she earned the silver medal. But it was a golden moment.
“I was happy,” she said. “And also relieved that it was over. I felt like I did well and I could see how far I’d come—even compared to my abilities in Atlanta.” Better than the silver medal was the opportunity to get to know other competitors, including a woman missing a shoulder and arm. “If you are missing an arm, who would even think about climbing?” Aika asked. “But that is what is great about adaptive sports. We have different disabilities, but similar mindsets. Yes, we have some limitations, but we are just people who want to be active and live a meaningful life.”
Onward & upward
In addition to competing in the 2016 Paraclimbing World Championships, Aika is chasing other new goals. She hasn’t been home to Japan since her injury and is training to compete in the Japanese nationals in May 2015. More important, she has a goal of growing the sport of paraclimbing as a Paradox Sports ambassador. “What I love about Paradox, and adaptive sports, is that we focus on our abilities,” she said. “When we are in therapy, we focus on what we can’t do and how to get better. In adaptive sports, we ask ‘what do I have left and how can I use that to do what I want to do?’” Aika also wants to use her experience—
as both a physical therapist and a patient—to help physical therapy students.
“There is so much I learned by being a patient,” she said. “Now, I approach patients differently. I have a better understanding of what people are going through.” —Amy Magan