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Climbing for a cause, Anchorage amputee Brelsford claims world title

  • Author: Beth Bragg
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published September 18, 2014

A pink bandana laminated on her prosthetic right leg, Christa Brelsford scrambled up a climbing wall in Spain and into history last week.

The Alaskan is a world champion less than five years after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake rocked Haiti and sent the world crashing down on her, crushing one of her legs.

Brelsford, 29, won the women's paraclimbing championship at the International Federation of Sport Climbing World Championships, a triumph she can trace back to the terrifying 90 minutes she spent trapped under concrete when the house she was in collapsed on Jan. 12, 2010.

"Even when I was in the house in Haiti, I knew Oscar Pistorius was doing his best to get into the Olympics, and I thought at the time, if there's a guy with no feet who thinks he can run in the Olympics, what the hell. I can climb again," Brelsford said this week from her New Mexico home.

She could and she did. Six days after the end of a long hospitalization, Brelsford, then a student at Arizona State, was at the Phoenix Rock Gym. Sixty-one days after the earthquake — and just two days after she was fitted for her first below-the-knee prosthetic leg — she was in Colorado for a climbing event for amputees called Gimps on Ice.

"I went there and I thought, this will be a really good time to learn what I can't do," Brelsford said. "And they spent the weekend showing me everything I could do."

Of course you can drive a car, they told her. Of course you can continue wall-climbing, they said.

Their can-do mentality became hers. Combined with a do-unto-others mentality instilled by her Anchorage parents, Brelsford channeled her seemingly endless energy and the celebrity she acquired as an earthquake survivor into humanitarian efforts for Haiti.

Brelsford and her brother Julian were on a two-week volunteer mission to Haiti, working on a literacy project, when the earthquake struck. Because she was an American who was evacuated with a severed leg, Brelsford became the subject of numerous news stories.

"I thought it was important to use the attention I was getting to do good in the world," she said.

And so in the months after the earthquake, Brelsford headed an effort that raised $100,000 to help rebuild a school, to provide stable living conditions for the family of a young Haitian man who helped rescue her, and to bring the young man to the United States so he could go to school.

More recently, Brelsford used the world championships in Gijon, Spain, as a hook to raise another $5,000 for education in Haiti.

Brelsford dazzled at the championships, recording the top height among women in both of the preliminaries and the finals. On two climbs, including the finals, she was two holds away from reaching the top of the 20-meter wall. Video of her final climb shows some extreme stretches as Brelsford works her way up the steep wall.

Brelsford, who attended Steller High School, was 12 when she started climbing at the Alaska Rock Gym and Cassel Rock. She has climbed ever since. She met her husband, Ethan Coon, at a rock gym in New York when both were students at Columbia University. And after the earthquake, climbing helped her recover.

"When you're walking and missing a foot, you're missing one out of two limbs," Brelsford said. "When you're climbing, you're only missing one out of four of them. Climbing felt more natural and more plausible than walking.

"It's a fairly useful way of learning to use a prosthetic."

The world championship is the latest achievement for Brelsford, whose list of accomplishments -- before and after her injury -- is considerable.

In the last few months, she has been an a roll. In February she gave birth to Eli Brelsford-Coon, her first child. In June she defended the dissertation that earned her a doctorate from Arizona State's School of Sustainability, where her focus was water resource economics. Then she won a world championship.

Eli accompanied her to Spain, which created an early complication. The day before the competition began, Brelsford was denied entry to the official practice area because no babies were allowed. "So," she wrote on her Facebook page, "I practiced on the birthday party wall instead and impressed all the 6 year olds."

Though Brelsford climbs because she loves it -- "It makes me happy," she said -- she recognizes that it's also a way for her to set an example for others who suffer serious injuries, the same way the people at Gimps on Ice set an example for her.

"To me the world championships are a celebration of what's possible," she said. "It's really neat to show myself and everybody else I can still do this and I can do it well. It's satisfying, and everybody likes to win. But it's satisfying to demonstrate that life-changing physical events don't have to constrain what you can do with your life."

If along the way she can raise awareness and money for Haiti, even better.

The Caribbean nation continues its hold on Brelsford. She remembers the poverty she saw there in the days before the earthquake, and she knows how the earthquake devastated families, homes and infrastructure. And she will never forget how Haitians -- some of them strangers -- helped dig her out of the rubble and carry her to a United Nations base where scores of the injured were evacuated.

Brelsford returned to Haiti for the dedication of the school she helped rebuild, and she does public speaking and fundraising on behalf of Haiti Partners, a group focused on helping Haiti by improving education there.

"I don't regret any of the decisions I made that put me in that place in the world," Brelsford said. "It's really easy for me to recognize that yes, I lost my leg, but my conditions are so much better than most of the people in Haiti who lived that experience, whether they lost their feet or not.

"Their whole world was changed in a way that mine wasn't. I was so privileged to come back to a home that was still standing and a family that was still in tact."

Brelsford said she went to Haiti so she could understand the needs of the nation and learn how to make things better there. Her choice of a career was similarly based on a desire to make the world a better place.

Asked where the drive to help comes from, she paused before answering.

"To me that sorta seems like asking why the sky is blue," she said.

Her parents, Taylor and Terry Brelsford of Anchorage, have been as passionate about fundraising for Haiti as their daughter. When she was growing up, her dad stressed the importance of being kind to others, "that the way to live a purposeful and morally driven life is to try to do good," she said.

That's a belief Brelsford lives by.

"I'd be dead if it weren't for the kindness of strangers," she said.

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