‘Fighting the good fight’
KINGS BEACH, Calif. – As the ball soars through the air, North Lake Tahoe native Frankie Tenorio III outstretches his arm to intercept, following its arch, but it sails past and is caught by a member of the opposing team who is stationed near the goal line.
In the time it takes Tenorio to turn his wheelchair on the basketball-size court to face the player, the able-bodied, wheelchair-sitting opposing team member scores a point by crossing the goal line in possession of the ball.
This scene played out early November in South Sacramento in a rugby-a-thon fundraiser for the Sierra Storm quad rugby team. Tenorio joined the Sierra Storm soon after returning home from a multi-month stint in hospitals following a diving accident he had off the rocks of Speedboat Beach on Lake Tahoe’s North Shore on Aug. 3, 2009.
Almost three and a half years later, Tenorio sits in a wheelchair, readjusting his position every so often by using his arm strength to lift himself off the seat slightly before lowering himself back down, during an interview near a cluster of picnic tables in the Kings Beach State Recreation Area.
He recalled being on the rocks that 2009 summer day, trying to sidestep others when his foot got caught in a hole about the size of “two palmfuls,” causing his ankle to twist and for him to go awkwardly into the water.
“I hit the water, and I knew it was going to be bad,” he said. “I tried to do like a somersault underwater as fast as I could, and I got almost half way … and then there was just like this big old pop that I could hear, and then my whole body kind of went stiff – straight arms, straight legs – and I felt kind of weird.
“I wanted to come up for some air, but my legs weren’t working, so I was kind of bobbing in the water.”
Two tourists, who happened to be lifeguards, and a local girl saw Tenorio bobbing in the water and went over to help. They kept his neck and back stabilized while bringing him closer to the shore, without taking him out of the water.
“I’m glad all three of them where there, ’cause if all three of them weren’t there, then it might have come out a little differently,” Tenorio recalled, adding that he would like to thank his first responders.
The 19-year-old was transported by CareFlight to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, staying there for a month before being transferred to Craig Hospital in Denver, which specializes in spinal cord injuries, for a three-month stint, said Frank Tenorio II, Frankie’s father.
Frankie, now 21, said he doesn’t remember anything from his stay in Renown.
“The last thing I remember was being up in the helicopter and then seeing Lake Tahoe, and I was like, ‘Wow. We’re really high up here,'” he said. “Then I woke up a month later (in Craig Hospital). I couldn’t move. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t do nothing.”
Frankie broke his neck at the C6, C7 vertebrae, with doctors putting in both pins and rods “to keep it all in place,” Frank Tenorio said.
Despite that doctors told Frankie he would never walk again.
“I didn’t want to believe them because I don’t like being told what to do or say,” he said. “They would tell me that every day, but I never really listened to them.”
But before he could even attempt to walk again, he had to relearn many of the tasks people take for granted.
“I had to relearn how to pretty much do everything, because when you’re a quadriplegic it stops you from the neck down, so I had to learn how to breathe, drink water, not choke on my own saliva, personal hygiene,” he said.
It wasn’t easy.
“It was definitely frustrating because going from being able to do everything growing up … breathing, wanting to go somewhere, getting a cup of water, everything that seems like little stuff is super huge stuff,” he said. “That’s a lot of trial and error.”
Some of the exercises he performed during his rehabilitation included taking deep breaths, touching fingers to fingers, and doing arm and leg stretches.
“I still do them every day because if I don’t do them for one or two days, I can feel it getting tight,” he said. “If you’re not on top of it every day, you get less function than you had the day before.”
Today, Frankie said he can do many of the activities he could do before the accident, from cooking and cleaning to driving and getting gas. The only exceptions are getting up large hills and stairs.
“I’m back to being independent,” he said with a smile, adding that it feels “amazing” to regain his autonomy.
Throughout the recovery process, Frankie said he never got depressed.
“I don’t know why,” he said. “I was just more focused on being happy with what I can accomplish each day. I try to do something new even if it’s something small like tying my shoes.”
“We are very proud of our son,” his father said. “He is extremely strong (of) mind, body and spirit. He has shown an amazing amount of willpower.”
Frankie credits his family, friends and the community at large for his improvement.
“I don’t think any of this could have happened without prayers, thoughts and the fundraising that happened here in Tahoe,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the great community here in the Tahoe Basin, I probably wouldn’t be as positive as I am.”
Several community fundraisers were held on behalf of Frankie, with the money going toward his therapy and getting him mobile with a vehicle.
Residents not only made monetary donations, but offered their time and services, too, Frank Tenorio said.
“Some people helped by bringing food or helping work or cleaning up, driving, you name it,” he said. “The community really could not have been any better.”
He added that the family was “very blessed” by the community, with its members to this day still inquiring on how Frankie is doing.
“People have given such wonderful support,” Frank Tenorio said.
Frankie said he was introduced to quad rugby two days after returning home from the hospital by Todd Wolfe, a player and team representative for the Sierra Storm who was paralyzed after a 2005 a motocross accident.
“Todd and the Sierra Storm were a great influence,” Frank Tenorio said. “All of the people (on the team) were injured also and knew what to expect, how to deal with things.”
Frankie echoed that.
“It’s kind of like the hospital where you meet other people with the same injuries, but they weren’t new; they were more experienced,” he said. “There were little shortcuts they would tell me, what’s a little bit easier, what works best for them … and then taking it home and trying to figure out which works best for me.”
Frankie just observed that first day, but was playing with the team after a few months time, his father said.
“He really picked up the sport quickly,” said April Wolfe, a Sierra Storm representative and Todd’s wife, citing Frankie’s past involvement in sports.
Before his diving accident, Frankie was active, playing on multiple soccer teams, including the North Tahoe High School varsity team, as well as the high school varsity basketball team.
Now that he’s on a team again – the Sierra Storm – he couldn’t be happier.
“I loved it because it got my adrenaline back,” Frankie said, smiling. “It got my competitiveness back from soccer and basketball, just my natural love for sports and activities.”
A game of quad rugby consists of four eight-minute quarters, in which teams of four have 12 seconds to advance the ball beyond the half court and 40 seconds to score, or it’s a turnover. The team with the most points wins.
It is a “full contact” sport, April said, with physical contact between wheelchairs an element of the game. However, personal contact such as slapping, punching or hitting is not allowed.
Since quad rugby athletes must have some loss of function in at least three or all four limbs, players are classified based on their function level, which ranges from .5 (the lowest) to 3.5 (the highest), April said. The total value for a team on the court cannot be more than eight points.
Frankie’s classification value is a 2.5, or, as he describes, a “high pointer.”
“I’m a high pointer because I broke C6, C7 – that’s like the highest amount of function, so I have good use of my left hand, but my right hand I can’t really close all the way,” he said. “It’s kind of an advantage because a lower pointer broke their neck higher up, so more like a C1, C2, so they have less function of their hands, not as much arm strength.”
As a result, lower pointer players serve as the defense, while high pointer players serve as the offense, trying to score.
“Yes, it is a wheelchair sport, but it’s a very competitive sport for the players,” April said. “There’s a potential to play at the national level.”
April said the Sierra Storm hopes to be one the six teams out of approximately 50 U.S. clubs that advance to the 2012 National Championship Tournament, held April 27-29 in Louisville, Ky.
Frankie’s ultimate goal, however, is to walk again, which he thinks he has a good chance of accomplishing.
“Now, since it’s been three years, I can actually feel my legs and I can actually stand and walk,” he said. “My walking is getting a little bit better; I just don’t have the strength to fully support myself without a walker or parallel bars.”
He said his doctors are surprised by how much mobility he has been able to regain, but they continue to tell him he will likely not walk again.
“I just want to keep trying to improve,” Frankie said. “Whatever I get back, I get back, and if not, I’m still happy either way.”
“… I want to keep fighting the good fight,” he later added.