Shawn Morelli

Army veteran and Paralympic Shawn Morelli holds her phone, which contains photos of the races she has competed in after being severely injured in Afghanistan.

Shawn Morelli was a sports enthusiast. She was passionate about soccer and loved the challenge that came along with each marathon she ran.

"I was always active," she said. "Always out doing something."

In just one short day, all of that was taken away from the Meadville native.

"It was all ripped away ... and so quickly," Morelli said. "I went from a company commander in the Army to confined to a hospital bed."

Not anymore. She's now a near-lock to represent the United States at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Morelli was deployed as an engineer officer in Afghanistan in 2007 and was on a road-clearing mission with her troop when an improvised explosive device the troop "had somehow missed," according to Morelli, detonated. When she woke from her hospital bed in Germany, she couldn't walk and had spasms, seizures and tremors. 

Morelli had been seriously injured. The explosion drove her C4 and C5 vertebrate toward her brain, leaving her with brain trauma, neck and nerve damage, limited movement on the right side of her body and a blind left eye. She was hospitalized for six months straight and then in and out for a total of two years. Her doctors' prognosis was bleak.

"They told me I'd never be able to do a great many things again," she said. Playing soccer and running marathons were among those things. 

An encounter with a bicycle changed all of that.

The 1994 Saegertown graduate struggled to lean on her family and friends for support with her injury and it was suggested she try cycling as a "method of physical and mental therapy," she said. In 2010, the current Leavenworth, Kansas, resident was introduced to the Warrior Games and subsequently invited to her first para-cycling camp.

"It took me a while to learn how to ride and how to stay upright," said Morelli, who still struggles through spasms, seizures and tremors, has no sight in her left eye nor depth perception. "The more I rode, I got better and better. Then one day I just decided I was going to hit the road. But I didn't race right away."

She had to first limit her crashes. For the first two years back on a bike, Morelli crashed each and every time. 

"I had to teach myself depth perception," Morelli said. "I didn't know I could race."

Two years later, Morelli became a member of the USA para-cycling team. She is now a two-time C4 road race world champion and won a world championship this past year in the time trial. Classifications are determined by functional capacity from neurological, locomotor, spinal cord lesions and visual impairments, according to the Union Cycliste Internationale's para-cycling classification guide.

Morelli is also the top-ranked female rider in the world in her classification, making her a favorite to land a spot on the USA team for September's Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. The Paralympics is a major international multi-sport event that involves athletes with a range of physical disabilities.

"They haven't announced the team yet," Morelli said. "But I think I'd have a good chance."

Morelli said the team will officially be announced in July. Until then it's "a lot more training, a lot more focused training," she said.

Morelli competes in four events — the 3k pursuit and 500-meter time trial at the velodrome, an arena for track cycling, and the time trial and road race on the road.

"Cycling at the Olympics was never a goal," Morelli said. "But I had to develop new goals after my injury." 

Especially after hearing so many times she couldn't.

"It's not just a victory for me but everyone who has been through something like this," Morelli said, "where someone has told them they won't do something again."

The world is listening to Morelli's message. Morelli, who is looking to relocate to Colorado Springs, Colo., soon with her husband, Lt. Col. Carl Dick, has been featured in a number of cycling magazines and websites around the world. Last summer, the Kansas City Sporting, a professional soccer team, honored Morelli during its Salute to Troops campaign.

In Leavenworth, she's a local celebrity. Her order is prepared nearly the minute she walks into the local Irish pub, where one of her jerseys hangs. The local bike shop has two jerseys and a photograph. All of the kids in town know Morelli by name, as she spends time teaching them to ride.

"It makes me feel good that I'm not seen as the disabled girl who tries to ride a bike," Morelli said. "I'm the one who lets the kids ride."

Morelli rides nearly 200 miles a week. Some days it's easy. Some days not so much. She never knows when a tremor may come or when she may have a seizure.

"Even when I'm having a bad day, the first thing I do is get on my bike," Morelli said. "You can't let the world stop you."

Morelli didn't. And now in September, Morelli, who was medically retired from the Army after 15 years of service, may get the chance to tell the entire world her story on a very big stage.

"I don't really let myself think about it," Morelli said of going to the Paralympics.

"My mom always says it's putting the cart before the horse," she added with a big grin.

Lisa Renwick can be reached at 724-6370 or lrenwick@meadvilletribune.com.

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