Susan Rotchy
Photo: Gabriela Hasbun
In 1996 Susan Rotchy was driving to work when one of her tires blew, sending her into a ravine. The accident left her paralyzed from the waist down and plunged her into a deep depression. "I cried for two years," Rotchy says. Unable to continue her job as an optician, she went back to school at a Bay Area college, but discovered that few of its buildings were wheelchair accessible. After leading a campaign to bring the campus into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, she cofounded a nonprofit, Research for Cure, to assist scientists seeking new treatments for spinal cord injuries, and helped pass state legislation to fund stem cell research.

In 2007 Rotchy's dedication won her the title Ms. Wheelchair California at a pageant that names a spokeswoman to advocate for the disabled. But it was while representing her crown at the No Barriers Summit in Squaw Valley, California, that Rotchy achieved her biggest win. Every two years, the summit helps disabled participants tackle outdoor adventures by outfitting them with adaptive gear, like an all-terrain wheelchair for hiking or a motorized propeller for swimming. "I thought I'd just make an appearance in my tiara," Rotchy says, but she got so inspired watching amputees climb a rope to a 50-foot-high tree house that, despite her fear of heights, she let a volunteer strap her into a harness attached to a pulley system. Halfway up, Rotchy froze. Someone yelled, "You can do it, Ms. California!" and amid cheers, Rotchy hoisted herself to the top. "It was the first time in years that I was free, out of my body," she says. "I was hooked." The next day, Rotchy paddled a modified kayak and biked on a cycle that she pedaled with her hands.

Now, while overseeing a center that helps people with disabilities live independently, Rotchy does twice-weekly assisted swims at a local pool, and she can't wait for the next No Barriers Summit in 2013. "I used to be the last one chosen in gym," she says. "I was the girl who picked daisies on the softball field. I didn't realize that it was a privilege to be able to do sports. When something is taken away from you, you want it even more."

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