COLUMBIA CITY, Ind (WANE) – Walking at graduation is no small step.
“I’m very exciting. I just think that it’s going to be a relief, like I made it,” Alissa Jagger said. “This era of my life is complete.”
Even for a runner like the Columbia City senior, this is a monumental day.
“She always had a super work ethic,” Alissa’s mother Amy said. “She was a competitor. She wanted to go out there and do her best.”
Her college choice is Grace but her mindset remains grateful even if this isn’t how she envisioned the moment being like.
“I’ve had a few struggles here and there that I didn’t anticipate and I’ve come through,” she said. ” I’ve actually graduated. I have my mind and God’s still with me. He’s still on the throne, everything is all good.”
Alissa was on varsity for the Eagles before she even started high school. During cross country season her freshman year at Columbia City, Jagger raced to an 8th place finish at sectionals. She was the fastest 9th grader at the entire section as she posted at time of 20:03 for the 5K course.
“My mentality was that I was really bad at passing people. I’d just start off in first so that fewer people could pass me,” she said. She led the entire field for the first mile. “That was my logic, freshman logic and it actually kind of worked.”
Even those stellar times didn’t satisfy Alissa. She began training harder than she ever had before heading into her sophomore year. There were big things ahead.
“We kept saying ‘Oh next year, next year’ and in track she qualified for regionals. Once again she was disappointed that she didn’t get to go to state,” Amy said. “And we always thought that there would be a next year and there wasn’t”
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“We were on our way to vacation to Virginia beach and going through West Viriginia and the mountains,” Chad Jagger recalled of the incident in 2015. “This vehicle in the far right lane and went across three lanes of interstate traffic tand I didn’t see her til the last minute.”
He tried to slam on the brakes but it was too late. The Jagger’s van collided head-on with the other car on the side. Due to the speed of the crash, both vehicles continued down the road. They eventually ended up in the median with lots of debris surroundin the wreck.
It was completely silent – eerily so – until Amy spoke first.
“I put my hand up and I started praying, the first words I said were, Lord we need to more than we’ve ever needed you before and I kept praying,” she said in more pain than she has ever experienced.
Amy checked to make sure all four of the Jaggers were still alive. The chaos of the moment was overwhelming and they had to get a grip on the situation.
“I was in a lot of pain,” Alissa said of her first thoughts after the incident. “I was like ‘Oh man I’m not going to be able to run cross country this season.’ Like that’s what I thought for some reason.”
Her mother Amy kept praying but the pain was too much for her to continue on with speaking.
“And I put my hand back on Alissa’s legs back here,” she remembered. “And I said ‘Honey you’re going to have to take over’ because it was really hard for me to breath at that point.”
Alissa heard her mother. She saw her mother’s hand but the next instant she knew that her life changed forever.
“My mom like reached back and touched my leg and I was like mom I can’t feel your hand,” Alissa said.
Her whole family survived the wreck. Chad exited the van and was assessing the situation, helping emergency crews. He was injured too but the wellbeing of his family was a priority over his own.
Alissa was immediately airlifted to a hospital just a few miles away in Charleston, West Virginia. The emergency crews needed the jaws of life to removed the door from Amy’s side of the vehicle. Once she was out of the van, Amy was also transported to the hospital to treat a broken leg alongside Alissa.
There was confusion and uncertainty. But one thing doctors immediately knew was that Alissa’s spine was broke.
The medical staff stabilized her but they wanted to wait several days to check on the status of her internal organs before undergoing surgery. The 15-year-old – with her running career over in a matter of moments – was calm with her parents.
“She was sitting up in bed and neither of us were crying or screaming or anything and the first thing that she said was I’m sorry that you have a paralyzed kid mom,” Amy recalled. “And I said we still have you, we still have your mind, we still have your sometimes sassy mouth, we still have your humor, we still have your goodness.”
Four doctors eventually told Alissa that she’d never be able to walk again.
The prognosis was bleak, her vertabrae mangled, but Alissa’s fatih and the Jagger’s hope was never stronger.
“I think probably like three days in it kinda set in, like wait my life isn’t going to be like super normal or it’s going to be a new normal,” Jagger said. Was it as simple as that? “It was a little sad. I like didn’t even cry at all the first week or something. I maybe cried like three times about it in the following like three months. I don’t know why but I think it was just like let’s do this.”
In typical Alissa fashion, she laced up her shoes as best she could and laughed off any doubts.
Rehab for the paralyzed runner began with tasks that many people take for granted.
“The first thing they had to teach me was how to actually put on my clothes but myself, that’s kinda a key process right? So the first time that I tried to put on pants that literally took me 30 minutes, 30 minutes of trying to put on pants. Like I’ve probably never burned more calories in my life than trying to put on those dang pants,” Alissa said laughing.
Alissa ran a 20:03 at sectionals in 2014 – and that was speedy compared to this new endeavor.
“No, not even at sectionals. It was like I literally ran a 5K faster than it took me to put on pants,” she continued.
From Atlanta to Chicago, the Jagger’s sought out the best doctors and treatment. Her brother Cameron assisted by starting a GoFundMe page and designed a shirt that says ‘Alissa Strong’ to help pay for some of the medical expenses.
Her father Chad, who is nicknamed McGyver for his creativity in creating the best life for Alissa’s new normal, constructed all sorts of workarounds in their house. With the help of a pulley system and a treadmill, Alissa and her father can do rehab on their own.
She – and the entire Jagger family – were resilient. Alissa relentlessly went through hours and days of rehab and she finally found her balance on long leg braces.
“Of course they’re like well you probably can’t walk, but I’m like okay I can’t walk, why don’t I swim. It’s always about finding something else that you can do,” Alissa said. She cannot feel touch on her legs but she can sense vibrations up her body when they hit the ground. The senior can’t place her foot down in front of her – but gravity is there is assist as well. “If we focus on the can’t then you’re just going to be really miserable a lot of the time and there’s so many cans, so many things you can do. So it’s much better to focus on the cans. So in that way it’s kinda proving them wrong a little bit. And it’s also proving myself wrong saying well you can do this.”
Alissa wasn’t done with walking and soon after the accident she was drawn to the pool
She did some therapy in the pool – the first challenge was not drowning. Alissa soon teamed up with a family friend to learn the different swimming strokes.
Alissa competed in the Endeavour Games held at Turnstone in Fort Wayne where she was able to compete once more. Her family was on hand and – despite keeping this event somewhat private – a huge group of fans showed up to support the Jagger’s.
Then on June 8, 2018 or less than three years after the car accidents that changed their lives forever, Alissa attended graduation alongside her peers.
The runner takes a huge step forward.
“I think that it’s important to show other people what can be done with faith and hope and determination,” Alissa said. Her bedroom still has many of her running trophies and bibs from races she once competed in. What’s the reason behind this? She jokes that she just doesn’t have any other decorations.
“The story doesn’t end like you planned it but life still goes on and there’s still goodness.
I’ve been able to overcome this and even though it takes a little bit more work for me to walk than everybody else,” Alissa said. “It’s like I’m doing it the same way as everybody else, I’m here I did it, now let’s go home.”