by: Nerissa Cannon
One of the original Freedom Chair Trailblazers, Nerissa, now works full time with GRIT! Her own journey with chronic illness has made her very passionate about helping other people get the most out of life in spite of a disabling condition.
I received my GRIT Freedom Chair on April 8, 2016. It’s interesting looking back on the time that’s passed since then. These days I share videos and stories about my incredible adventures, but it hasn’t been an easy journey to get to this point. Folks look at my successes with my Freedom Chair and assume that’s how I started, or that things were simple for me in getting to this level. What you see me do is merely a small snapshot. There is a much bigger picture many people don’t consider.
When I first started riding my GRIT Freedom Chair, it certainly made a lot of things easier in my life. I was less fatigued pushing the levers as opposed to pushing on my ultralight wheelchair's tires. This meant I could go farther, even just going on the pavement. When I wanted to leave the pavement for a bit and go through some grass or gravel, it was so smooth! My front tire didn't get bogged down the way my small wheelchair casters had. It felt like gliding! I enjoyed these mini adventures that allowed me to go further more easily (and with less pain) than I had in quite a while. However, I'm the type of person to push the limits of myself and my equipment, and it wasn't long at all before I was setting my sights on loftier summits.
I won't lie: I was a little TOO ambitious in the trails I began to attempt. I assumed (very naively) that because I used to be a great hiker, and now I can wheel a wheelchair all day, that the two skills would somehow combine. I didn't consider that there might be a conditioning curve. I was plunging into a whole new sport: Wheelchair Hiking. I tried to push too hard, too fast, and I got frustrated. I yelled at those I cared about just for trying to help me on terrain that was above my current skill level. I almost stopped using the Freedom Chair altogether because I had unrealistic expectations of myself when I started out.
With gracious support from the GRIT Team and my friends, I readjusted my expectations. I went back to the basic off road trails I started on when first receiving my Freedom Chair. I learned how to seek out simpler new routes that would allow me to more fully enjoy myself, rather than being a constant struggle. While doing so I gained strength and endurance almost without realizing it.
Within the last few months I would find myself in situations on trails thinking “I don’t think I can do this, but I guess I’ll try it!” Surprisingly, I would overcome it! By readjusting my expectations to just enjoy my time out with the Freedom Chair no matter what the terrain, unknown to me I had improved my skill level to the point where I can now tackle just about anything I want!
On September 16, 2017 I completed a hike that was the type of terrain I was always envisioning I would want do with my GRIT Freedom Chair. Up until then I did not have the skill to do so. The trail is called “Lichen It,” a 3 mile climb up with 500ft of overall elevation gain. It’s a mostly well-maintained mountain bike trail but with some rooty and rocky moments. It was a situation where, once again, I surprised myself with my abilities. I started the trail, knowing it would be a challenge, and just committed to doing as much as I was able to while still enjoying the journey. I didn’t expect myself to complete it, but I kept finding myself pushing forward and upward, forward and upward. I’d pass downhill hikers that would say, “Wow! You are going as fast as I did uphill!” Before I knew it, I found the marker signifying the end of the trail.
My climb was rewarded with a challenging, yet exhilarating descent. On the way down I reflected about how that day, and so many others, would not have been possible without my GRIT Freedom Chair. I thought about how I almost gave up in my frustration, though now that seems like such a long time ago and such a small moment in the big picture. On the day I completed “Lichen It,” I was so grateful I didn’t quit when I was frustrated. I was grateful for all the support and encouragement I received during those challenging times, and all those people who wouldn’t let me quit. I can now confidently say that, today, I’ve exceeded what I originally thought would be possible for me to navigate with the Freedom Chair.
More than anything I want to be that support person for others just starting out in the sport of Wheelchair Hiking. I want to remind them to keep pushing while maintaining realistic expectations. I hope they understand that it's okay to ask for help when they need it. I want to remind them not to compare their abilities to anyone else’s because it’s their own unique journey. Whether they dream of tackling tough trails, pushing themselves on the beach, or simply taking a spin down their driveway and around the neighborhood, it's important to break that ultimate goal down into small, attainable daily goals. Push even just a tiny bit further today than yesterday, and they can be that much closer to their goal! Above all I want to make sure they don’t give up when the going gets tough or when things feel like they are taking longer than they should. Before they know it, they’ll surprise even themselves with what they are able to accomplish.
Because the GRIT team understands that it can take time to adapt to a new piece of equipment, they have a gracious 30-day money back guarantee. I encourage everyone to make FULL use of the 30 days. If the Freedom Chair is a little different than you imagined on the first day you try it, don’t get discouraged! Try it again on Day 2. Go slow and build steadily in distance and difficulty of terrain. Be patient with yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask a trail buddy to come along on your adventures just in case you need a little assistance. If after 30 days of use it’s still not working for you at all, GRIT will accept it back and you’ll receive a full refund! What have you got to lose?
Please, learn from my experience and allow yourself to slowly condition to using a Freedom Chair, just like you would taking on any new sport or activity. Take time to enjoy your surroundings, the people you adventure with, and the journey itself. Slow and steady wins the race after all!