Riding a chairlift at the Tahoe Adaptive Ski School at Alpine Meadows, with lengthy blond locks flowing from a jet-black, ski-racing helmet, Ricci Kilgore, 25, makes it clear this isn’t going to be your typical, the-doctors-told-me -I-would-never-walk-again, look-at-me-now story.
It does have all the elements: Star athlete is involved in highway tragedy; star athlete is told she will never walk again; determined, star athlete regains strength and makes second shot at Olympic glory.
But this story is also much deeper.
Kilgore’s athletic talent, specifically her pole-vaulting and skiing, distinguished her from schoolmates while she was growing up in Reno. In 1999, during her senior year at Reno High School, she placed third at the Nevada State High School Track and Field Championships for pole-vaulting and was the Nevada state champion for girls’ ski racing. Her peers named her the school’s best overall athlete, and she was offered athletic scholarships to the University of Nevada, Reno and Idaho State University in Pocatello. She went to Idaho to pursue her pole-vaulting.
By March 2000, Kilgore’s hard work began to pay off. At a meet at ISU, she vaulted 12 and a half feet, setting a new personal record. The leap was high enough for an invitation to the Olympic trials. But her pole-vaulting dreams would soon be cut short.
On March 19, 2000, Kilgore and her teammates were returning from a track-and-field meet in Reno. Their van hit black ice in Burley, Idaho, and slid into oncoming traffic. Everyone was wearing seat belts; Kilgore’s failed, and she was ejected 60 feet from the van.
After a brief to stay at the Burley hospital, the 19-year-old was flown back to Washoe Medical Center in Reno, where she regained consciousness two days later.
With a broken back and her spinal cord bent at a 90-degree angle, Kilgore had become a paraplegic from the waist down.
The others in the accident were unharmed.
After eight months in Washoe Medical Center, Kilgore was released.
The accident might have been a downward turning point in Kilgore’s life, but she refused to let it change her lifestyle. She was determined to return to competitive sports. Within months of leaving the hospital, Kilgore began hippotherapy, a rehabilitation method where the patient rides horses to regain muscle control and improve circulation.
The therapy helped, but Kilgore wanted more.
In December 2000, only nine months after the accident and against the advice of her doctor, Kilgore decided she was going to learn to ski on a monoski designed for the disabled, which is a lightweight chair with a ski attached to the bottom. That season, Kilgore spent endless hours at Mt. Rose perfecting her technique on the new ski. She became proficient, but she still wasn’t satisfied with her performance.
It was then that her uncle, local oncologist James Forsythe, told her about a stem-cell informational seminar he had attended. He was excited about the possibilities, and, before long, Kilgore was, too.
She learned that many doctors believe stem cell injections can facilitate the regrowth of tissue and muscle that are necessary for everyday activities like walking.
Never one to procrastinate, Kilgore found herself the following summer on a plane to La Romana in the Dominican Republic to undergo surgery with German stem-cell specialist Dr. Albert Scheller and Dr.William Rader of Malibu, Calif. For both doctors, this was an experimental project. Scheller had spent years researching the possibilities of fetal stem cells, which are the most potent cells available for this type of treatment, and tested them on small animals with success. Kilgore would be their first human patient.
The two-part surgery, in which the team gave Kilgore 50 cubic centimeters of stem cells from an aborted fetus through a series of intravenous and stomach injections, proved to be a success. Although it is difficult to substantiate that the stem cells are the actual cause, new tissue began to grow in her legs that enabled her to use the muscles above her knees again. Within four months after the second injection, the paralysis had decreased to her knees and below. She was able to walk short distances and even climb stairs with the aid of a cane.
And now that Kilgore believes stem cells have positively affected her life, she thinks that more injections can further improve her condition. She believes she will one day walk unassisted again. But it will take some time, as Kilgore is forced to balance further treatment with a full load of credits at UNR, where she is studying to be a large-animal veterinarian.
She is also the lone wheel-chair member of Controlled Burn, a local fire-dance team that dances with sizzling batons at Burning Man each summer.
However, Kilgore finds time to spread the word about stem-cell transplants.
“At least five to 10 people a month call me to find out about my results,” she said. “I tell them about how good it has been for me and that anyone who truly believes can have the same results. I don’t tell people about the benefits in order to help doctors make more money. I know for myself that stem cells work, and that’s enough for me.”
In the meantime, Kilgore continues to pursue her Olympic dreams, only now on snow. United States Disabled Ski Team coach Kevin Jardine heard about Kilgore’s two impressive finishes in races this season and invited her to the U.S. Disabled Alpine Championships in Vail, Colo. She placed third in the giant slalom, putting her on track to join the Olympic team for the 2006 games in Torino, Italy. If she posts similar results in qualifying events next season, Kilgore said she will likely make the team.
According to her close friend and personal trainer, Paul Fischer, she might as well buy her ticket to Italy now.
“She’s already overcome goals much bigger than that because doctors told her she would never walk again,” Fischer, who donated $300 to help Kilgore get to the Disabled Championships, said. “Very few people are that goal oriented, that driven.”
With the Olympics, veterinary school and further stem-cell surgery in the near future, could it be that Kilgore has too much on her plate?
“Yeah, I have a lot going on right now,” she laughs. “But there is always enough time, as long as I save some private time for myself.”
With NBC officials calling about a possible documentary and a trip to Mt. Hood, Ore., for more ski-team training coming up, that private time will be harder to find.
In reality, all the exposure excites her.
“The more people that hear my story, the better,” Kilgore said.