CARLSBAD — Erica Davis completed her first major race when she was 3-years-old.
Her mom was running a 10K in Northern California, and she, her father, and two brothers were waiting near the end to cheer.
“As my mom was coming around the corner, I took off from my dad and I ran the rest of the way across the finish line hand in hand with my mom. So I say that was my first race,” said Davis with a smile, twirling her long blonde hair with her fingertips.
Now 31, Davis has competed in several races and trained in countless types of sports from lacrosse to ballroom dancing. Among other events, she is currently preparing for the L.A. Marathon, which takes place March 17.
The only difference now is that she competes as a paraplegic. But that change has done little to stifle the athlete and the determination in Davis.
“I was just a natural born athlete meant to be outdoors playing sports or whatnot, so I wanted to do that before my injury and I’m doing it now,” Davis said.
Late in December 2005, Davis woke up with an extreme backache and over the next few days gradually lost mobility in her legs until she was unable to walk. Specialists later discovered that a type of blood vessel malformation, cavernous hemangioma, had caused a small leak of blood onto her spinal cord, which paralyzed her below the waist.
She spent months in and out of the hospital, physical therapy and rehabilitation, leaving her job as a physical education teacher behind.
But it wasn’t long before she was pushed back into athletics.
Just three months after her injury, Davis met Roger Robbins, a competitive hand cyclist in Northern California.
Davis said that when she tried using Robbins’ handcycle bike, “My parents said it was the first real smile they had seen on my face since my injury because it was the first time that I could see that I could do sports again.”
Without her knowledge, Davis’ parents bought her a handcycle bike, which she used to compete in a race with Robbins a month later.
Davis eventually moved from Northern California to Carlsbad, where she found more specialized therapy programs, comfortable weather, and, most importantly, sports.
With the training support and funding of organizations, including Challenged Athletes Foundation, Davis has completed numerous marathons and para-triathlons, and has tried nearly any sport that crosses her path such as wheelchair lacrosse and ballroom dancing.
“All the sports that I have done, I’ve done them before, so now coming back and relearning them another way it’s exciting because it’s like a new sport,” she said.
But Davis is far from satisfied with just trying sports; she has also set records for female paraplegic athletes.
She was the first female paraplegic to climb all 19,341 feet up Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain in 2010. A few weeks ago, she said she became the first female paraplegic to compete in open water jet ski racing.
Davis said that because of her inner teacher, “I want to just get out there and make the path so that others behind me can have an easier go at it.”
Davis is preparing to race in her signature yellow handcycle in this weekend’s 26.2-mile L.A. Marathon thanks to a sponsorship from Achilles.
“Without them, I’d be doing local stuff,” she said of Achilles. “It’s an honor and a privilege to be out there representing for them.”
She has already completed the L.A. Marathon twice before, but this year she will be racing with a partner Sandi Rush.
“We’re competitive, but we’re each other’s biggest cheerleaders,” Davis said. “We help each other in any way even if it makes the other one faster.”
The two are aiming for a time below an hour and 50 minutes.
Davis is also currently training to compete as part of the U.S.’s para-triathlon team for the 2016 Paralympics and doing yoga on the side.
In addition to working with specialized trainers, she also works out with numerous athletes throughout the county to prepare for upcoming events and new sports.
Dale Beck has been training in hand cycling with Davis for about the past five years and will be racing in the L.A. Marathon as well.
When he first started training with Davis, “I would take the lead and (told her) eventually she would be faster and better than I am,” said Beck, who has competed in over 50 marathons on handcycles because of his fused knee. “That time came a couple of years ago.”
Beck said he enjoys training with Davis because of her determination. “She doesn’t like to have anyone else up front.”
Aside from the numerous marathons and triathlons she has ahead of her in the coming months, Davis also maintains an “extreme bucket list” to set herself up for new challenges. Her list includes completing a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Challenged Athletes Foundation’s Million Dollar Challenge from San Francisco to San Diego, and the Hawaiian IRON MAN.
But her biggest goal, one she has been working on since late December 2005, is to walk again.
“I know I’m not going to be in the chair forever…That was kind of always my thought from the beginning,” Davis said. To this day, she refuses to get a disabled person license plate and uses only the temporary placards.
She is working with specialists to re-pattern her neurological system and develop greater feeling in her legs. She also pushes herself to build more muscle in her legs by practicing standing with her standing frame and ballerina barre.
“In the beginning it was just such a big goal of, ‘I want to have my normal life back.’ But now…if I were given the choice to go back and live my life as if my injury hadn’t happened, I would choose my life now with injury and challenges and everything that comes with it.
“It’s definitely going to be the hardest goal that I’ve ever had to do and will do. It’s going to take a lot but it’s still a goal.”