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Swimmer finds salvation in the pool

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    Swimmer finds salvation in the pool

    Swimmer finds salvation in the pool

    By STEPHEN FRYE, Of The Oakland Press June 10, 2002

    Cheryl Angelelli competes in the Oakland Live Y'ers Long Course Invitational swim meet at Oakland University Oakland Press photo/VAUGHN GURGANIAN

    June 10, 2002
    Cheryl Angelelli logs long hours in Oakland University's swimming pool. She does her distance training in the 50-meter pool because it's one of the few Olympic-sized pools in the area, and the world-class swimmer is preparing for yet another competition, another challenge. But the cool, soothing water represents more than an arena of competition to the 33-year-old Angelelli.
    It has been her salvation.

    After a devastating diving accident at 14, the Fraser resident was left with little use of her legs. But her competitive spirit wouldn't allow her to remain still.

    Instead, she returned to the water, the place where she thrived so well, and began a long journey of rehabilitation.

    "After my accident, I focused a lot on my therapy and recovery," Angelelli said. "I went a lot further in swimming than I ever thought I'd go."

    Angelelli, who graduated from Oakland University with a degree in communications, said she feels lucky her injuries were such that the treatment and physical therapy she received from the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan - where she now works - could help her regain some use of her legs. "I work in a place where I see miracles every day," she said of the institute, at the Detroit Medical Center. "You can never underestimate the human spirit."

    The accident left her with an incomplete spinal cord injury. Her spine is intact but bruised and damaged. Some nerve messages are passing through the spinal cord, but not all, allowing her very limited use of her legs. She does have use of her arms, but her fingers are affected and she is unable to grip an object. Though the challenges were great, she decided to return to competitive swimming five years ago while working as a journalist and covering the Paralympic Games in 1996.

    She got the urge to resume swimming and decided to see if it was something she could do, never expecting to reach her current level of success as a Hall of Fame and world-ranked athlete. Swimming had been part of her therapy and then a recreational activity. But the lure of competing in a sport that she had to give up at a young age was too strong to ignore. Her successes include being ranked third in the world in the 100- and 200-meter freestyles, and she holds three American records. This past week, she returned to the OU campus to participate in a swim meet as a noncompetitor and is busy training for the U.S. Disabled Team, which will compete at the World Championships in December in Argentina.

    She's also getting ready to take the biggest plunge of her life - her marriage. She first met her fianc鬠Shawn Kornoelje, at the Oakland University pool in 1999. A Paralympics swim coach, he was coaching one of his athletes, and she was training for the Paralympic trials. They met again a year later in Sydney, Australia, during the 2000 Paralympic Games when he was an assistant coach. Their friendship grew when they returned to the United States. He proposed to her last year, in front of a crowd of about 4,000 people after he had asked her to speak to a large group before a championship event. He is her coach now.

    For the most part, she uses a wheelchair, but on Aug. 24, she plans to walk down the aisle with her father, Ray, fulfilling her lifelong dream. "Even after the accident, I dreamed of making that walk with my dad," she said. "I feel lucky that I'll be able to live it out in front of the family and friends who were with me through years of physical therapy." For now, though, she is thinking of her swimming. She will travel to Seattle for the U.S. Disability Swimming Championships from June 13-15.

    "To compete at the level I compete at, you have to donate a lot of time to training," she said. "This is almost a second job for me." Though she plans to retire after this year, she knows that she wants to stay involved with swimming - perhaps as a coach or journalist or just working with teams. "It's something that I'll be involved with somehow, some way," she said. "I love to compete."

    But after this year, her long-term goals include continuing her career in public relations as well as starting her new life as a wife. She loves her job at the institute, which is the largest freestanding rehabilitation center in Michigan. Having been a patient there for five months, she got to know many of the staff. She learned how to dress herself in her wheelchair, transfer from a bed to wheelchair, feed herself, and walk with braces, a walker and then canes. She also is helping organize the eighth annual Detroit Spinal Victory National Golf Challenge, set for June 24, at the Wyndgate Golf Club in Rochester Hills.

    The event raises money for spinal injury research for the institute. She notes the advancements in research has allowed people with injuries similar to hers to leave the institute after four or five weeks. But she won't completely rule out more competition. "I never say never," she said. "Because I said that I would retire before, but I'm still in."

    ©The Oakland Press 2002