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Rachelle Friedman Chapman is stronger after training for almost three weeks in October at Project Walk, a spinal cord injury recovery center in California.
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updated 1/2/2012 12:07:03 PM ET 2012-01-02T17:07:03

A North Carolina woman who got married last summer after a poolside accident left her paralyzed isn't walking yet, but she hasn't given up on learning to move on her own again.

Rachelle Friedman Chapman is stronger after training for almost three weeks in October at Project Walk, a spinal cord injury recovery center in Carlsbad, Calif. And the 26-year-old from Knightdale, near Raleigh, hopes to return for more training that could help her walk for the first time since the accident just weeks before her original wedding date.

"You see people standing up out of their wheelchair, people who are relearning how to walk," Chapman said in a recent phone interview.

It was on May 23, 2010, that Chapman was pushed into a pool by a friend at her bachelorette party in Virginia Beach, Va. She fell into the shallow end and awkwardly hit the cement bottom. The injury to her vertebra left her with no feeling from the chest down and feeling on the inside of her arms but not the outside. Her wedding had been scheduled for a few weeks after the party, but she and her fiance postponed it by more than a year.

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Story: Playful push into pool leaves bride-to-be paralyzed

She has never revealed the name of the friend, who was a bridesmaid when the wedding was finally held in July 2011. The cruel timing of her injury and her enduring positivity landed her story in newspapers, websites and television reports around the world.

Chapman got one round of rehabilitation therapy after her accident and tried to exercise on her own. Now she works out on a table that her husband, Chris, and his father built for her and does weight-bearing exercises on a home gym.

Her balance is better because her core is stronger, as are her arms.

When Chapman arrived at Project Walk, she was weak, says Kimberly Davis, an instructor there. Her blood pressure was low because her muscles had atrophied and she didn't have the muscle contractions necessary to move the blood, Davis says.

"Mornings would be difficult for her," Davis says. "We wouldn't even be able to get her into a seated position without her passing out."

Video: Paralyzed bride returns from honeymoon (on this page)

She also was suffering from bone loss because she's not standing or bearing weight. By the end of her treatment, Chapman was able to move for 30 minutes on a machine similar to an elliptical trainer that takes clients through the walking process while supporting their legs and body with a harness.

She also was able to get upright in a frame that uses hydraulics to move clients to a standing position.

"I was pretty impressed with her progress," Davis says. "She didn't leave here walking, but she increased her strength tremendously."

While she describes Chapman's condition as severe, Davis says it's still possible she will walk again. "With this injury, it's unpredictable," she says.

Chapman, whose California rehab was funded by an organization called Walking With Anthony, hopes to return in 2012. "I want to go back more than anything," she says.

Image: Rachelle Friedman
Gerry Broome  /  AP
Rachelle Friedman looks in the mirror during the fitting for her wedding dress. Despite her paralysis, she wore her original gown.

Davis wants her to return as well. "If I could have her back in here tomorrow, I would," she says. "She needs to be back in here as soon as possible. There's really no duplication of the program."

Story: Paralyzed bride: Despite accident, ‘we can make it’

Planning to have a child
Meanwhile, Chapman is taking care of other business. As promised, the Beatles fan got a tattoo of the peace sign drawn on the back of her neck, at the center, marking her injury. Underneath is inked, "Let It Be."

It was, she said, the most painful thing she's ever experienced — the fall in the pool didn't hurt.

She is also learning to drive again and thinking of trying to find a job or getting a master's degree in a subject such as school counseling. And she's started writing a book.

She and her husband are considering having a child, but she has to get off the blood pressure and pain medications to do that.

"It's not going to be a fun pregnancy," she said. "I'll probably be dizzy and in pain all the time. It will be nine months of sacrifice. ... But we would love to have our own child."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Paralyzed bride returns from honeymoon

  1. Transcript of: Paralyzed bride returns from honeymoon

    MATT LAUER, co-host: This morning on TODAY'S UPDATE , wedded bliss for the couple whose big day had to be put on hold after the bride-to-be was paralyzed in a freak accident . We're going to talk to the newlyweds in a moment. But first, Natalie Morales has more on their story. Natalie , good morning.

    NATALIE MORALES, anchor: Good morning again, Matt. Well, Rachelle and Chris waited more than a year after that accident to finally tie the knot. And now you can officially call them Mr. and Mrs. Chapman after their very special wedding and honeymoon .

    Mr. CHRIS CHAPMAN: I, Chris , take you, Rachelle , to be no other than yourself.

    MORALES: Rachelle Friedman and Chris Chapman are now newlyweds after a long-anticipated trip down the aisle.

    Ms. RACHELLE CHAPMAN: I, Rachelle , take you, Chris , to be no other than yourself.

    MORALES: They exchanged self-written vows a little over a year after their original wedding date was postponed when a life-altering accident left Rachelle in a wheelchair.

    Ms. CHAPMAN: As soon as I hit the water I felt my body just kind of stiffen up. And I went numb and I kind of heard a crack in my neck.

    MORALES: Rachelle was celebrating with girlfriends at her bachelorette party when a friend playfully pushed her into the pool. She was paralyzed.

    Ms. CHAPMAN: It was an accident, a freak accident . It could have happened to anyone.

    MORALES: There was never a doubt that the two would eventually marry.

    Mr. CHAPMAN: It was never 'what am I going to do next,' it was 'what are we going to do next?'

    Ms. CHAPMAN: I can't wait till the day where I can finally say, 'I'm Rachelle Chapman and this is my husband.'

    MORALES: And Rachelle can call Chris her husband now.

    Unidentified Man: Mr. and Mrs. Rachelle and Chris Chapman !

    Ms. CHAPMAN: Very hard to describe our happiness. Like it's just -- like we -- like we said, it's going by so fast, but we are so happy. I mean, I don't even know how to describe it. I'm in -- I'm in shock.

    Mr. CHAPMAN: Yeah.

    Ms. CHAPMAN: And happy.

    Mr. CHAPMAN: There was so much planning in everything that went into it. At this point, it's just kind of going through the motions . We're just along for the ride.

    Ms. JENNIFER GLATT (1-800-REGISTRY Wedding Planning Manager): Rachelle very much wanted her and Chris ' wedding to be reflective of who they are as a couple. They lived their vows long before they ever said them.

    MORALES: 1-800 - REGISTRY saw their story and threw the couple their fantasy wedding , including an all-expense paid honeymoon to Fiji . The company has provided video of the events to NBC News . For one week, Rachelle and Chris enjoyed the island as honeymooners. Both agree that the people they met made their trip even more memorable. Rachelle even taught some dancers a thing or two about line dancing and was flattered by the attention she received in the local villages. All part of a new chapter as husband and wife. A very special day and honeymoon that were both a long time coming for such a remarkable couple, Matt. We've certainly enjoyed getting to know them over the last year.

    LAUER: And we continue to get to know them. Natalie , thank you very much . Let's say hello to Mr. and Mrs. Chris Chapman . Guys , good morning. Nice to see you.

    Mr. CHAPMAN: Good morning.

    Ms. CHAPMAN: Hi .

    Mr. CHAPMAN: It's great to see you.

    LAUER: A little fried because you just got back from this honeymoon . That's a long way away.

    Ms. CHAPMAN: A little . Yeah.

    Mr. CHAPMAN: Yeah, yeah, a little bit.

    LAUER: A little jet-lagged? You described the wedding as perfect...

    Ms. CHAPMAN: Yes.

    LAUER: ...you know, and perfect means you wouldn't have changed anything.

    Ms. CHAPMAN: Nothing at all.

    LAUER: Yeah? What was the best part of it?

    Ms. CHAPMAN: Oh, gosh. I mean, besides getting married, I don't know. It's just -- it was -- it was totally us. I mean, we planned it perfectly as, you know, what our ideal wedding would be and I can't even pick one thing, I really can't.

    LAUER: Chris , this was a dream put on hold, and so can you describe your feelings as you -- as you watched Rachelle come down the aisle?

    Mr. CHAPMAN: It was just amazing to see, you know, everything finally come together. Obviously this wedding was, you know, a lot of planning, and to see both families come together and finally be able to call Rachelle my bride was an amazing experience.

    LAUER: And it was a nice cool day, it was only -- it was only 102 degrees, which had to make it a little interesting.

    Mr. CHAPMAN: It was. But it was -- it was quite a celebration.

    LAUER: Then you went off on your honeymoon to Fiji . And from what I understand, you really got to experience some things that you had always wanted to. First of all, you did a little fishing, you did a little scuba diving. What was that like?

    Mr. CHAPMAN: It was great. You know, the resort had, you know, everything you'd expect from a spa to scuba diving and fishing. And it was -- it was quite an experience. But the people and the culture is really what we took to during the trip.

    LAUER: Yeah. Rachelle , I was reading that you met some people on this honeymoon that you are sure you will stay in touch with for a very long time. Tell me about that.

    Ms. CHAPMAN: Oh, definitely. I mean, the resort was absolutely amazing, we went to Tokoriki Resort and -- but right across the way is a village and a lot of the, you know, employees live there. And we visited the village twice. We just fell in love with it. The kids, the people, and definitely, yeah, I'd love to stay in touch with them.

    LAUER: And this line dancing ? How did that come about?

    Ms. CHAPMAN: Well, in Fiji , a lot of the people who travel there are Australian because it's right there for them, kind of like our Bahamas , but they don't line dance in Australia , it's kind of foreign to them. So when I told them what I did with senior citizens before I was hurt, they all wanted to learn line dancing . So I did my best to kind of call it out because I couldn't show them, but Chris showed them.

    LAUER: That was your doing there?

    Ms. CHAPMAN: Well, I had to teach him.

    Mr. CHAPMAN: I don't take responsibility.

    LAUER: Yeah. Yeah. You don't...

    Ms. CHAPMAN: I had to teach him before.

    LAUER: Oh. You know, one of the words -- actually there are two words that come up, I think, a lot when we've been talking about your story over the last year or so, and one word is strength and the other word is spirit. So I'd like to ask you both the same question. So Chris , where does she get her strength from?

    Mr. CHAPMAN: I don't know, but it's been amazing because I think a lot of our -- myself and our families have fed off of her strength. It was her calm and collectiveness throughout a lot of this, you know, experience that's really helped us, you know, be strong and help her.

    LAUER: And, Rachelle , what about him because, you know, he's no slouch in that area either. Where do you think he gets his strength?

    Ms. CHAPMAN: Again, I mean, I just -- I don't know, I think we both feed off of each other, you know, our strength. You know, when I was in the hospital and I was hurt, I wanted to be strong for them and I know he wanted to be strong for me. So I think we just helped each other.

    LAUER: When you look forward now to a life together as a married couple, I really like the way Natalie put it in that piece, or that someone said, said that you have lived your vows before you actually exchanged your vows.

    Ms. CHAPMAN: Yes.

    LAUER: Do you think that's going to make for a strong marriage?

    Ms. CHAPMAN: I sure hope so. I think so. I mean, we've been through the hardest of times and I think we can make it for sure.

    Mr. CHAPMAN: We've always said we were, you know, best friends long before we started dating, so we -- our relationship was founded on friendship.

    LAUER: That's great. Well, Chris and Rachelle , it's great for you to share your thoughts with us. Welcome back from the honeymoon . And our best wishes .

    Mr. CHAPMAN: Thank you so much .

    Ms. CHAPMAN: Thank you.

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