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Gruss rebuilding her athletic life after being paralyzed

Bishop Luers graduate Shelby Gruss has rebuilt her athletic life after becoming paralyzed from the waist down three years ago. News-Sentinel photo by Blake Sebring
Bishop Luers graduate Shelby Gruss has rebuilt her athletic life after becoming paralyzed from the waist down three years ago. News-Sentinel photo by Blake Sebring
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press

Luers grad will play wheelchair basketball at Illinois

Wednesday, July 24, 2013 12:01 am
While lying in the hospital, trying to somehow comprehend her paralysis from the waist down, Shelby Gruss first understood she wasn't alone."God was always there for me. From the start, He had a lot to do with me just saying, 'OK, this is how it's going to be the rest of the way.' I had a strong base with God before it happened, and honestly, I don't think I would have had such a good attitude in the hospital without that.''

It seems like yesterday to many, but it's been more than three years since Gruss was an 18-year-old Bishop Luers senior attempting a big air jump while snowboarding over Christmas break in Ohio. The board flipped from under and she landed on her shoulder and upper back, breaking the T8 and dislocating the T9 vertebrae.

We all dread the unknown of change. Every time Facebook adds a tweak, the major result is complaining. A great new idea at work usually results in anxiety. Everyone tenses at road construction and the disruption of routine.

Gruss had to deal with one of the largest changes possible. Her existence flipped over as much as the snowboard that had been providing her base. Not only was her basketball season finished, but so were all the other plans she had for the rest of her life. Everything changed except her faith and her attitude.

"God takes special people to do that because not everybody could have handled it the way she does,'' Bishop Luers basketball coach Denny Renier said. "It's just hard to believe I could have handled it the way she has, when you look at the devastation and the chances you may be in that chair the rest of your life, and she's been that way from Day One.''

This fall Gruss will start attending the University of Illinois to study crop science and play on the wheelchair basketball team. She doesn't consider herself an inspiration, but if others want to look at her that way, that's OK, too.

"I just think I'm a normal person going through everyday life,'' she said. "If I inspire people, that's OK.''

The inspiration started almost immediately. Everyone who visited expected the worst, but Gruss cheered them up.

"I can tell you from when I went to see her in the hospital, it was more upsetting for me than it was for her,'' longtime Bishop Luers athletic department secretary Joni Kuhn said. "She comes whipping down the hall in that wheelchair with a big smile on her face and she's asking me how I am. She's like, 'I'm fine. This sucks, but I'm going to be fine.' I absolutely believe that. There's nothing she won't do.''

Every day at practice was a chance for Gruss to get better for tomorrow, Knights Assistant Athletic Director Diane Karst said. Gruss always made sure she was doing her best so everyone else could get better because of it.

Renier remembers when Gruss was a freshman and no junior varsity player wanted to guard her because they'd get beat up. She was hard-nosed and out-worked everyone. She still plays the same way, aggressive and a little mean and hates that her defense isn't as good as it could be.

"I'm not as fast in the chair yet, and I really need to work on my mechanics,'' she said. "I was always the kid who would go for any ball so it's a little different when I do it now. I just don't end up on the floor as much.''

But she still usually comes up with the ball.

"Watching her play now and seeing the joy in her face does you good to see that none of this is holding her back,'' Renier said. "That's just Shelby.''

The first time Gruss went back onto a basketball court at Turnstone, she was nervous knowing she'd be weak, and she hates being terrible at anything. She didn't know how to play the game she'd always loved or work the chair or adapt to teammates. The teammates helped her get adjusted, teasing her almost immediately because she was the only girl.

The worst part? Going from being able to make a three-pointer with some regularity to not being able to make a free throw. Gruss always took pride in her form, but she'd had to adjust it to get enough air under her shots, and now her range is decent out to 16 feet.

But maybe she's doing it all wrong. Players who've been in wheelchairs lot longer never tried to develop perfect form, and they can put the ball in from almost anywhere. She, however, can't adjust what is already ingrained and shakes her head in disgust and sometimes awe at how accurate her teammates can be.

Basketball has also provided insight into her new life. If there's something she doesn't know how to do, someone else has already figured it out and is willing to share. She had no idea there was such a large physically challenged population, and now she's got a new culture of friends, teammates and competitors.

And she's still a daredevil. She's already revisited the accident scene, this time to ski. She's learning archery, has become a precocious tennis player and rides horses. With the help of friends, she even took part in a Tough Mudder recently and has plans for another in the fall. The announcer said she was the toughest person he knew.

``It made me realize that absolutely nothing is impossible, especially when you have support and a team. I think a lot of people aren't willing to ask for help sometimes because they have to prove they can do it themselves, and that's me. I want to do anything I can by myself, but there are a lot of things you can do if you just ask for a hand, and a lot of people are willing to help.''

It's like Gruss is finding new ways to climb back into her old life. Kuhn said Gruss was the toughest competitor ever to come out of Bishop Luers.

"I think there's a reason for this,'' Kuhn said. "I don't know what it is, but she's going to change the world, and I've always told her that. I can't imagine anything stopping her, ever.''

Gruss is tough, adventurous and the best way to get her to do something has always been to express doubt about her. She gladly embraces that challenge.

Maybe, someone suggests, God picked her for this as an example.

"It might have been God's plan. I've accepted what's happened, but I think someday I'll be able to walk again. If God wants me to do it, He's going to let me.''

Someday soon, Gruss wants a tattoo, probably on her back. She wants the line from the end of the poem ``Footprints in the Sand,'' where a person looks back on their life walking alongside Christ only to see one set of footprints at times.

"I want the last line, 'And that's when I carried you.' ''

Gruss also knows that at the end of the poem there are two sets of footprints.

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