COLONIAL HEIGHTS, Va. -- A crash forever changed Mandy Marchiano’s life when she was 13 years old, but her grace and tenacity led her to another life-defining moment.
For Marchiano, being active is not the same as playing sports. She has tried many of them, including: rowing, archery, kayaking and handcycling.
But she said “nothing compares” to rugby, a tough sport that requires practice and a unique set of skills.
"My favorite is wheelchair rugby," she smiled. "You start, you're pushing out three times."
Born on Sept. 5, 1990, sports have always played an important part in the Colonial Heights native’s life.
"I was really active growing up,” she said. “I played soccer with the rec department, and I was a cheerleader with school, and also competition squad. I was on the swim team at SYC."
But her life forever changed 18 years ago.
"So the accident happened Nov. 28th, 2003,” Marchiano remembered. “It was the day after Thanksgiving. We were traveling to Williamsburg."
As a result of the crash, Marchiano’s spinal cord was injured, leaving her a quadriplegic paralyzed from the chest down.
"I was in the back seat of the van and the impact crushed my C4, 5 and 6 vertebrae."
Marchiano spent 94 days in various hospitals.
"I started at VCU, then I spent some time at Richmond's Children's Hospital and then I went to Shriner's Hospital in Philadelphia," she said.
Mentally there were some tough moments.
"It was difficult, you know, going from being so active, to not being able to move and have to use a wheelchair is a very strong difference," Marchiano said.
But strong is a key word in describing. First she graduated from high school on time. Then she earned her associate’s degree from Richard Bland College.
From there it was on to VCU where she earned a bachelor's degree in biology and chemistry.
Then another life-changing moment happened in 2016.
"I was watching the Parade of Athletes for the Paralympic Games and I had known about Adaptive Sports, but wasn't sure I could play any," she said.
A quick internet search netted Marchiano all she needed to know.
"I came across Sportable in Richmond and I signed up," she recalled.
Marchiano tried almost every sport Sportable has to offer, but rugby is in her DNA.
"All of us that play have either gone through a dramatic spinal cord injury or some type of amputation or a disease or disorder that causes these adversities they have to overcome in life and those things make you really tough," Marchiano said.
When she is not competing, Marchiano is a peer mentor for the United Spinal Association of Virginia.
"I meet with newly injured patients that have had spinal cord injuries, especially women," she said.
Marchiano said that once the injury happened her life was divided into before.
“When something like that happens, your perspective on life changes and you have to find new interests and your priorities change,” Marchiano said. “But those new interests lead to meeting new people."
But Marchiano said how the people in her life treated her was a key factor in her recovery.
"Friends that didn't treat me any differently and I think most importantly was a loving family," she said.
Marchiano, who has overcome adversity with grace, determination, toughness and a smile, continues to help others while thriving on the thrill of competition.
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