Unstoppable: The Cheryl Angelelli Story

mobileWOMEN.org Contributor, Cheryl Angelelli
Paralympic medal winner, World Record holder, and Athletes with Disabilities Hall of Fame inductee, are just a few of Cheryl Angelelli’s accomplishments after a tragic accident in a swimming pool in 1983 left her a quadriplegic. At the time, some may have thought a promising athletic career was cut short. For Cheryl, it was just beginning.
Cheryl began competitive swimming when she was 8 years old and always dreamed of going to the Olympics someday--but fate would intervene. On February 4, 1983, Cheryl walked into swim practice one night and never walked out.

"My coach had us practicing a new racing dive. He put a rope in front of the starting blocks. I jumped higher than I normally would to clear the rope, instead I hit my head at the bottom of the pool...and in an instant my life forever changed." 

Cheryl was diagnosed with a C6 incomplete spinal cord injury. Paralyzed from the chest down, Cheryl has full use of her arms but is unable to use her hands and has very limited use of her legs. After her accident, she was transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan, where she began the long journey of healing physically and emotionally. As a disabled teenager she struggled with anxiety, body image issues and self-confidence.

A turning point in Cheryl's life was when she competed in the Ms. Wheelchair Michigan pageant in 1991 and won. She was also crowned first runner-up Ms. Wheelchair America.

"Competing in the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant was an eye opener. It was the first time I met other women with disabilities. These were beautiful, successful women who were business owners, mothers, advocates and athletes. They inspired me by showing me anything was possible and the only limitations in life were the ones I chose to place upon myself."

Cheryl pursued a B.A. degree in communications from Oakland University in Rochester, MI. While freelancing as a journalist in 1996, Cheryl was sent to cover the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta, GA. The experience would change her life.

"I didn't realize how much I missed competitive swimming until I covered the Paralympic Games. Here was this elite level competition that existed for athletes with physical disabilities and I knew it was my chance to realize my childhood athletic dreams."

Cheryl began training and by the time the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia rolled around she was one of the top 5 swimmers in the world. She didn't win a medal in Sydney but she came away from those games with something even better; she met her future husband Shawn. Shawn was an assistant swim coach for the US Paralympic team and in 2002; he became Cheryl's husband and coach.

Cheryl is one of Michigan's most decorated athletes with a disability. She won a pair of bronze medals in the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens and a pair of silver medals in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. She is a 7-time world champion and still holds 15 American records and 2 world records.

Cheryl retired from competitive swimming in 2013 and recently fulfilled another dream of learning wheelchair ballroom dancing.

"The joy and the freedom I feel when I am dancing can't be expressed in words. I feel like I am flying or floating across the dance floor. I look forward to performing and teaching others with disabilities and without what is possible. You don't need two working legs to dance, dancing starts in your soul."

For the past 20 years, Cheryl has worked at the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan, the very same hospital she rehabbed at as a teen. She is the director of marketing and public relations and serves as a source of inspiration and motivation to newly disabled patients.

Cheryl has no regrets about the path her life has taken.

"Looking back now I can say the night of my accident I gained more than I lost. My wheelchair has taken me places and opened doors my legs never would have. From my wheelchair I have visited over 20 countries, swam on 6 continents. I’ve wheeled across The Great Wall of China, I’ve met two U. S. Presidents and even had a movie made about my life. I can't wait to see what adventures the next chapter of my life will bring."


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