Health & Wellness

Woman who is paralyzed hikes Appalachian Trail — alone

Life is full of challenges and obstacles, but one woman — who is paralyzed from the chest down — isn’t letting that stop her from taking on one of nature’s biggest feats.

Stacey Kozel, a 41-year-old hiker from Medina, Ohio, is aiming to hike all 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Maine to Georgia. And she's doing it alone.

"I didn’t start out doing this because I thought it was going to be easy," Kozel told TODAY.

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Indeed, it's no walk in the park: Out of the thousands who attempt the trail, only 1 in 4 completes it, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

When she was 19, Kozel was diagnosed with lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease that can damage any part of the body.

"I’ve always wanted to hike, but just I felt like I was trapped in my wheelchair," Kozel said. "I was just dying to get outside."

Kozel did more than that. So far, she's hiked over 905 miles of the trail since starting her journey on March 24. She's hoping to reach the halfway mark by July 4.

How is it all possible? Kozel uses computer-generated leg supports that last about two days on one charge. Their main purpose is to help her bend her knees when walking. She uses her arms, shoulders, and neck muscles to compensate for the leg and abdomen muscles that no longer work.

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Though she's completed a large portion of the trail, it hasn't been easy.

For about 200 miles, Kozel's right leg brace was completely locked. Eventually, she had to fly to Ohio to get the brace fixed, but she came right back to the trail afterward.

Even rain can be an issue for Kozel. "My braces aren’t waterproof yet; I have to hide from the rain," she said. "One day it’s going to be waterproof, but for now, the braces are too expensive to get wet."

Kozel has also discovered the value of tuning in to her surroundings. "I've learned to listen to the wild ponies and the cows for weather," she said. "It was funny, all the wild ponies started running underneath the tree, I remember thinking, where are you all going?" Within 20 minutes, the sky opened up and it was pouring. "I'm going to listen to animals now," she said.

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Still, there are a lot of days Kozel says she wished her legs would "kick in and help out."

"The people out here, all the people, it’s really what's keeping me motivated," she said.

Kozel hopes that everyone can live their lives the way they want to and never let anything stop them.

"It’s not going to be pretty and it's not going to be fast, but I'll get there."

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