DIANE ELLINGSON, one of Utah's most successful gymnasts, used to fly through her uneven parallel bar routines like a bird on wings. Now her body rests heavy in a wheelchair. Yet, she still gazes upward. Her startling blue eyes twinkle with delight as new dreams, lifted on wings of determination, take flight.
In 1981, U.S. Olympic champion Kurt Thomas invited Ellingson to join the first-ever U.S. Professional Gymnastics Classic, a musical gymnastics extravaganza sponsored by Madison Square Garden. Ellingson, 22, came out of retirement to accept the honor of being on the tour. Most of the participants were Olympic greats, but Ellingson was chosen not only because of her talent but because of her beauty and her radiant personality. Ellingson had always been able to charm an audience and woo media attention with her smile.Tragedy struck the first day of the tour. During workout, Ellingson overrotated the landing on a difficult vaulting horse move and came crashing down on her back.
"I committed the stupidest, most unforgivable error. I was working without a spotter. The second I hit, I felt the life grind out of my body like a coil unwinding and going out the soles of my feet. I later found out that my spinal cord was severely pinched."
Ellingson's life hung in the balance, but balance was her art. She survived the surgery that fused the bones in her neck and endured the subsequent weeks of traction.
Having to admit once and for all that she was grounded was the lowest point in Ellingson's life. But the gymnast had trained herself to bounce back. She took stock of her remaining options. Ignoring pain and exploiting her talent and balance as an athlete, she once again pushed herself to perform many tasks doctors said she shouldn't have been able to do.
In two years, transported by a special handicapped bus to campus and wheeling herself to and from classes by herself, she finished her degree in elementary education at the University of Utah, where she had been a star gymnast, an all-American athlete for three years and captained her team, under coach Greg Marsden, to its first NCAA championship.
"I decided that all I had left was just my brains, something I hadn't paid much attention to before," she jokes. "But I knew I could be a teacher because I had worked with young gymnasts all my life, and I love kids. The hard thing was to get the system to accept me. The truth is, Granite District forced my principal to take me on as a teacher, but I don't think they regret it now."
She has been teaching third grade at Rolling Meadows Elementary School for the past five years. Amazingly, she is the teacher most noted for discipline in her class, using a system of strict rules and a generous reward system. The highest prize she bestows on her best students is the privilege of pushing her in her wheelchair. She has taught her students that the principle of service brings the greatest honor.
Teaching is not Diane Ellingson's only career. Now it seems that despite her modest insistence that she is not special, the public seems to think otherwise. Within weeks of returning home from the hospital, Ellingson was giving inspirational talks encouraging others not to give up when life's problems seem impossible. She has given over 400 volunteer firesides and recently gave her 45-minute presentation, complete with slides and inspirational music, five times in one day, a schedule she admits is exhausting. She has become a member of the National Speakers Association.
Four years ago she was hired by Darick Motivational Resources Inc. Since then, top organizations such as IBM, Cellular One, Sperry-Univac, the Keith Warshaw Foundation, Salt Lake City and the state of Utah, as well as numerous colleges and junior high and high schools and several out-of-state organizations, have invited her to speak.
Ellingson hates the word "handicapped."
"When I was a kid I used to use the word, `spaz,' if I did something clumsy. Now I regret it. Nobody could ever know how painful it is to be labeled as something less than you are.
"I don't think of my wheelchair any more than I used to think of my legs. It gets me where I want to go. I hate it when people stare right through me and see only the chair. Sometimes I pull faces to wake them up."
Ellingson directs her life in terms of her long-range goals. She sees her future as a national motivation speaker looming larger. Her biography is in the works.
She rises at 4 a.m. every morning. It takes her four hours of patient struggling to bathe, put on her makeup, dress, fix breakfast and get out the door for work. Four hours to do what others do in a short 40 minutes.
Ellingson is ruthless about her personal grooming. Her honey blond hair is kept long, permed and scrupulously clean. Most of the time she wears it cascading off her shoulders, but she has learned to sweep it into a ponytail and has invented a way to wrap a ribbon around it and make a perfect bow, all with only two fingers.
"I once had my hair cut in a butch. In the hospital. It wasn't a pretty sight!" Ellingson laughs.
It took her several years of trying, but Ellingson finally figured out how to put in her own pierced earrings by using a glob of silly putty to hold the back in place while she guides the post through her ear.
Her mother tailors her clothes to flatter her seated figure. Ellingson had her wheelchair altered, the back cut down and the arms removed so as not to feel dwarfed by it.
Ellingson's sense of humor and cheerful attitude, as well as the attention she pays to her physical appearance, bring results.
"I always have a man hanging on the arm of my wheelchair," she quips.
Ellingson wants to marry and have a family. One of the ironies of her type of spinal injury is that while the outside shell of the body is paralyzed, the internal organs function normally. Doctors tell Ellingson that she should be able to have children. As with every other goal Ellingson has made in her life, she clearly sees the enormous difficulties apparent in this one.
"Just don't tell me it's impossible," she says. "I've done the impossible before."
Today Ellingson does laps around the track near her home. She pushes herself a mile and a half every day and feels terrific about it. She performs perfect wheelies around the corners of the tri-level traverse ramp that comes out of the back door of her parents' house. She parks her wheelchair at the deep end of the swimming pool and dives in head-first.
"Swimming is the closest thing I feel to being free of the dead-weight of my body," she says.
There are a few times when Ellingson allows herself to feel grief over her condition. One night she went to Ballet West to see "Giselle."Comment on this story
"I cried," she says. "It was their legs. I used to have beautiful legs." Still, she hopes to have beautiful legs again. Her religious belief in the rewards of a life hereafter diminish the gravity of her present physical impairment for her.
"I don't blame God for what has happened to me," she says. "After all, he didn't make me fall on my head. I did a good job of that on my own. But he helps me every day of my life now, and I do what I can do to make life better for others. What you give comes back to you. I can see that so clearly now."