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UGA graduate gains a new perspective on life

  |   Kathryn Kao   |   Permalink   |   Spotlight

What started out as a fun bonding experience at a children's soccer camp would eventually lead two friends down a bumpy road towards health and recovery.

During the summer of 2013, Jill Maloney, 20, and Rebekah Perry, 24, worked as camp counselors at a residential soccer camp in Athens. While there, they bonded over a sport that defined a large part of their lives—both students played on the UGA women's soccer team—as well as a mutual dislike of chasing children around the field.

However, Maloney's time as a goalkeeper on the team was cut short unexpectedly after she suffered a spinal cord injury.

"I took a bad dive and started having parenthesias," said Maloney. "My neck would get hot, and I later found out I had congenital cervical spinal stenosis."

After the incident, Maloney—who graduated from UGA this past May with a bachelor's degree in international affairs and political science—started developing a tingling sensation in her neck and hands. At times, she had trouble feeling her face, which doctors worried may be caused by another underlying problem.

For three months, Maloney endured testing procedures for various diseases including cancer and multiple sclerosis. Her X-rays revealed that her spinal cord was severely compressed, which explained the numbing sensation she often felt in her limbs.

Today, when Maloney leans her head back, only a millimeter of space is present between her spinal cord and spinal canal. Since her condition is progressive, her spine may continue to narrow as she ages. As a result, a dramatic dive backwards could lead to paralysis from the neck down or even death.

"Before my French final in December, the doctors told me I wouldn't be able to play soccer again," she said.

After Maloney was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, she started experiencing irregular heart palpitations. To stop her fainting spells and correct the arrhythmia—known as supraventricular tachycardia—Maloney underwent heart surgery during the summer of 2014.

Recovering from a life-changing injury is extremely difficult, both mentally and physically. Maloney said she was devastated by the news and fell into a depression. Fortunately, Rebekah Perry, or 'Chewy' as she's referred to by most of her friends, was by her side every step of the way.

While working towards her bachelor's degree in nutrition consumer foods, Perry developed a close friendship with UGA baseball player Johnathan Taylor.

Taylor was partially paralyzed during a game when he collided with another player and broke his neck. His experience and relentless attitude in rehab inspired Perry to pursue a graduate degree in kinesiology with a focus on strength, conditioning and fitness.

During her time at UGA, she conducted research in the kinesiology department's Body Composition and Metabolism Lab and also helped rehabilitate children with disabilities as a volunteer director for the Pediatric and Motor Development Clinic.

"We really got into detail about how the body works together in movement," she said. "When learning about people with disabilities, we focused on what their bodies can still do and how they can pursue certain things."

To get back into athletics, Maloney often joked about dabbling in javelin throwing. While many of her friends laughed at the idea, Perry refused to let Maloney pass up the opportunity to recondition her body.

Together, they started lifting and working out on a daily basis. After examining Maloney's scans and researching her condition, Perry even devised a health and fitness program that consisted of various neck strengthening exercises as well as squats, planks and a new diet. The ultimate goal was to strengthen Maloney's core and rebuild her form for the javelin throw.

"We were obviously comfortable with lifting and running," said Perry. "But we never really analyzed what we were doing during soccer. It was cool to actually run Jill through some tests as I learned more about the body in class. I would test her and see where she was at physically."

At the end of the day, the entire process was based on both students' sense of accountability. Perry would encourage Maloney to wake up at 8 a.m. to go to the gym, while Maloney would keep up her determination during practice.

"We did it together," said Perry. "It's easier to have someone eat well and exercise with you everyday to achieve certain goals. It can be really tough, especially if you're sore and tired."

At times, Perry would stop the routine if it looked like Maloney's neck was causing her pain or dizziness. She also practiced with Maloney on the track and went to all of her meets to stretch her out before each event. When Maloney was finally offered a walk-on spot as a javelin thrower at the University of Maryland, Perry was one of the first to know.

"I had no doubt that we could do this," she said. "Jill deserved to know that she could succeed. Plus, it was fun for me."

Maloney is planning on interning at Idaho National Laboratory this summer and wants to work for the government to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. In the fall, she will be attending the University of Maryland to study public policy and international security and economic policy as a student athlete—something she thought she'd never be able to call herself again. After training with Perry and recovering from her injury, she said her head is in a better place now.

"I'm just so much happier now," she said. "If something ever happens again and I feel like I've hit rock bottom, I know I can get better. I'm just a more mature person than I was before, and I'm also much more hopeful and optimistic."

Perry recently graduated with a master's degree in kinesiology and plans on pursuing a Ph.D. in global health at the University of Puerto Rico. As she works towards her goal of rehabilitating people around the world with spinal cord injuries and amputations, she will continue to encourage Maloney on her new journey in the sports world.

"You really can do what you set your mind out to accomplish," she said. "Jill really was amazing and the best goalkeeper I've ever played with. So, it was awesome to be a part of her recovery process and see everything come together."

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