Aug. 13, 2013 at 4:00 PM ET
After a car accident paralyzed her from the waist down at age 17, Stevie Beale hated hearing that “things would get better.” She felt that no one truly understood the struggles she was going through. “Who am I?” she found herself asking.
Seven years later, after months of physical therapy and practice, Beale no longer feels that way — thanks to the man who she says brought her "back to life."
And on Saturday, the 24-year-old former athlete from Toledo, Ohio, fulfilled a promise she'd made to herself just after her 2006 accident — to walk down the aisle on her wedding day.
“I was trying not to bawl like a baby in front of 300 people,” Beale’s husband Jared VanAusdale, 32, told TODAY.com of their wedding day. “Seeing her on the walker, reaching that goal that she swore she was going to hit, is something I will never forget.”
Beale was injured when she and four friends went for a car ride during the summer after her junior year of high school, and, being “dumb teens,” began throwing water bottles at other cars. One driver became enraged and turned reckless, chasing Beale and her friends at 90 miles per hour.
The driver of Beale’s car eventually lost control while making a left turn, careened into an embankment, and hit a tree. Beale‘s back was broken, and her spinal cord severed. The driver, who was also her best friend, died.
Beale was devastated by the loss of her friend, and by her injuries, as her recovery spanned months and then years. Once a softball player, gymnastics teacher and soccer coach, she questioned what she would do with the rest of her life when the activities that had defined her were no longer physically possible.
“I thought I was doomed to my parents' house, to never have a boyfriend or never get married,” she said. “I thought I was going to sit at home and rot away.”
The turning point came when Beale’s parents found a therapy center — the Detroit Medical Center's Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan — with a special program for spinal cord recovery work that made her “feel like an athlete again.” There, Beale also met other patients with spinal cord injuries who were living full, happy lives with families and jobs.
Beale soon began reaching out to others who had been through similar situations, which ultimately led her to her future husband. A little over three years ago, Beale heard the story of 16-year-old Bri Mullinger, who had lost her left leg and best friend when an Amtrak train struck them. Beale stopped by the hospital to speak with her and her family, as she had done with two other paralyzed teens, and they instantly hit it off.
She also hit it off with VanAusdale, a good friend of Bri's mother and a regular in the hospital room. Soon enough they were texting back and forth, and VanAusdale admitted he was falling for her.
“It was one of those situations where you feel like you’ve known the person forever,” he said. “It was effortless.”
Though Beale was hesitant at first, she finally put her heart on the line. “And I’m glad I did,” she said. “I always tell him that he gave me the ability to enjoy life again and makes me continue to want to work hard.”
Beale says VanAusdale, who proposed last fall in Hawaii, is “100 percent” the reason why she was able to walk down the aisle. He encouraged her through thrice weekly therapy sessions, and talked her though her frustrations when she was disappointed with her sometimes slow progress.
All that grueling work came to fruition on Saturday, when the pair wed in Toledo’s train station and Beale walked down the aisle with the help of a walker. Her best friend Bri was there too, even though she had just undergone major surgery a few days before.
“It was a day of pride for how hard she’s worked to get down the aisle and to even emotionally prepare herself for the rest of her life,” Beale’s mother, Sheryl, told TODAY.com. “I felt nothing but pride and joy.”
Beale’s next goal is to complete a master’s program in counseling at the University of Toledo. She’d like to counsel adolescents who have experienced tragic events, while working her way towards a Ph.D. that will enable her to become a professor. She plans to continue sharing her story at high schools and inspiring teens to never despair, even in the face of adversity.
“She could’ve felt sorry for herself,” VanAusdale said. “Instead she grabbed that situation by the horns, turned a negative into a positive and helped so many people along the way. It’s an awesome thing to be a part of.”