Reese Ketler sat behind the wheel of his car and took a deep breath.
It had been more than a year since the 21-year-old was able to feel the freedom of being able to drive wherever he wanted — let alone be by himself.
"You don’t realize how valuable it is until it’s stripped away from you," Ketler said.
Ketler became paralyzed during a game with the St. Vital Victorias Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League team in December 2019. The defenceman made an end-to-end rush and took a shot.
He collided with a player from the other team and flew into the boards. His life, at 19, changed instantly.
Just 14 months later, Reese was able to get his driver’s licence again. Things are slightly different in the car now. It’s modified with hand controls. There’s a lever to push down for gas and forward for the brake, and a special attachment hooks Ketler’s hand to the wheel.
Ketler is what’s termed a C7 tetraplegic. It means he has an injury that affects all four of his limbs. While his body has drastically changed, his spirit and determination have grown stronger.
"It’s hard not to stay motivated when you are seeing all this progress you are making," Ketler said recently during a two-hour workout at First Steps Wellness Centre in Winnipeg.
"It’s not just I’m working out to get big or get strong or look a certain way. I’m actually working out for my future."
“You don’t realize how valuable it is until it’s stripped away from you.” — Reese Ketler
Ketler jokes with exercise therapist Daniel Jangula as they make their way through intensive therapies that include stretches, rowing machines and heavy rope exercises. It’s exhilarating and exhausting.
"I like to work out and it’s something I’m accustomed to because I did it a lot before with hockey," said Ketler.
Jangula explains each movement has a purpose. There are medical reasons for some, such as preventing blood clots, but there are also strength-building exercises that give Ketler significant independence in his daily life.
His schedule is packed. He is at First Steps three days a week and does home workouts in between.
Ketler was also playing wheelchair rugby before COVID-19 restrictions shut down organized sports.
He’s honest about how the pandemic brought additional challenges into his life.
Last March, Ketler was still in hospital. A nurse came into his room and said he couldn’t have any more visitors, not even his parents. The only conversations he had for about five weeks were through video chats.
"It definitely was hard to go through," he said.
Ketler and his family made the choice to bring him home earlier than planned. It was a new reality, but one they wanted to face together.
He speaks with a smile about his parents, April Gobert and Trevor Ketler, and their constant support and encouragement.
"There’s struggles, of course, but there’s a lot of really good things happening, too. Thresholds met. Goals achieved. And there’s many more to come," Ketler’s father said.
“It’s not just I’m working out to get big or get strong or look a certain way. I’m actually working out for my future.”
Ketler has spent the last year surpassing each goal he sets for himself.
He’s become increasingly strong in new ways. The father and son reflect on how a year ago they celebrated Ketler holding a water bottle on his own. Now he can throw a ball across the room and catch it at the same speed.
There’s a mirror at the wellness centre that has Ketler’s personal records written down. Nearly each week they grow more impressive.
He did a semester back at university. He flew internationally with the support of the Shriners. He made a couple of viral TikTok videos.
The family also got a dog, Daisy.
"When you see the progress you are making, you get a lot of encouragement from other people and you see it in the mirror," he said.
For the avid athlete, getting back into a sport was monumental.
Wheelchair rugby used to be known as murderball. The sound of crashing aluminum frames and intense athleticism has made the sport wildly popular. Both of Ketler’s parents played rugby so it’s in his genes.
Ketler’s next goal is to make it into a competitive league. But, he said, finding the rugby community has been just as important.
“The biggest thing I probably missed was being a part of a team."
"The biggest thing I probably missed was being a part of a team," he said.
The men he plays with have all been in wheelchairs longer than he has. They give tips and tricks about which chairs are the best and other advice Ketler says he wouldn’t be able to get elsewhere.
It’s also important to talk with other people in wheelchairs about the things they can achieve.
"I know people who are in wheelchairs in my similar state that go on yearly trips, go scuba diving, paragliding, skydiving," he said.
Jangula and Ketler laugh like teammates in a locker room as they talk about how to best prepare for rugby’s return.
"This guy is going to tear it up," Jangula said.
— The Canadian Press