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Iron Will

Stacey Kozel Doesn’t Let Partial Paralysis Prevent Her from Walking the Appalachian Trail

There was a time—actually, a few times—that Stacey Kozel ’15 didn’t know if she would walk again.

After a high school soccer injury to her spinal cord left her paralyzed, she was diagnosed with lupus—an inflammatory autoimmune disease. That means Kozel has been in and out of the hospital most of her adult life. After a life-threatening car accident and a severe lupus flare up left her wheelchair-bound and paralyzed in both legs in 2014, she pondered her next move.

“I’ve had to learn how to walk more than once,” she said of her post-accident condition. “I remember the second or third time laying in the hospital and looking up and thinking, ‘God, what are you trying to tell me here?’ No one should learn how to walk more than once.”

So last spring when she decided she was going to hike the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail with the help of a new little-known leg brace, it was about proving to insurance companies that the brace could improve the lives of those suffering from conditions like hers. It soon became much, much more than that.

After completing the six-month, 14-state trek through most of the eastern U.S. on Oct. 9, the 42-year-old Kozel has now become a national media sensation and an inspiration to many.

“Never did I think it would get this big of a response,” said Kozel of her journey, which was covered by numerous media outlets such as the USA Today, CNN and the Today Show. “This hike has become more than about me. It became about other people, and I wanted to do this for everyone who was supporting me and reaching out to me and telling me their stories and struggles.”

Kozel was able to hike the trail thanks in part to the C-Brace, a leg brace that allows for the ability for those using it to bend their knees while walking.

However, she spent months trying to convince her insurance company that it was worth the $90,000 or so price tag. Once she did, she wanted to show others as well.

“I wanted to prove to insurance companies that quality of life should be important,” she said. “I didn’t expect any kind of media attention.”

But when she started out on her quest on March 24 in Georgia, word quickly spread.

“Everyone’s kind of out there by themselves, for the most part,” Kozel said. “But you’re not really alone, because there’s other hikers out there.”

Those “other” hikers quickly became her “trail family.” And like in many families, nicknames are given. Her trail name: Iron Will.

“Someone gave me that early on, and my trail name actually traveled up the trail quicker than I did,” she said. “They would say, ‘You’re Iron Will.’ I’m just someone stumbling through the woods.”

The journey was not an easy one. Even with her special braces, moving through parts of the trail were difficult. Because the braces are still in somewhat of a development stage, there were some glitches. In fact, she even had to leave the trail to return to her home state of Ohio to get
them fixed.

“Through my hike, the engineers and manufac-
turers were already able to make some adjust-
ments,” Kozel said. “One day they will be good for hiking.”

Balance was a continuous issue on the trail, with each step a challenge. And because of her condition, she had to pack lighter than other hikers.

“You quickly figure out what you really need and what you don’t need,” Kozel said. “The best way to learn is getting out there and doing it.”

She and a group of hikers even encountered a momma black bear and her cubs somewhere in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains. The bear started running right at them.

“My friends all went running,” Kozel said. “My brain was back there with them, but because I can’t turn around, I was stuck. … I think some kind of noise came out of me that I would never be able to repeat, and (the bear) stopped. And it gave me enough time to turn around and back up a little bit.”

Her worst moment: trying to ascend the 5,267-foot Mt. Katahdin, the final summit at the very end of
the trail.

“Many hikers said it’s the toughest part of the whole trail,” said Kozel. “I went there a year before to hike it, and I didn’t make it to the summit that day. But when we came down, I told my friend, ‘I don’t care, I want to try to hike the whole trail. I didn’t care if I had to crawl to the summit, I was doing it.’”

And that’s when she ended up doing. A year later, on her third try, fighting through wind, bitter cold and rain, Kozel, ascended to the top of Mt. Katahdin on her hands and knees.

“I kept falling,” she said. “My hands were so frozen and numb I couldn’t grip my trekking poles. … I was just exhausted. … But I remember thinking of the people who were counting on me. I think God definitely had to be there helping me through. My fingertips are still numb from that hike.”

With her quest completed, Kozel is still processing what she just accomplished.

“I still don’t know if I have wrapped my head around this, especially the ending,” she said.

One thing she has processed: She is now on a different path with her life.

“The hike has opened some doors of being able to share my story,” said Kozel, who was already approached about writing a book. “Right now I’m going to be doing a lot of speaking events and doing more awareness for lupus. Hopefully I can use my story to help other people.

“I’ve spent so many years hiding the fact that I had lupus. … I had to shrug everything off and try not to talk about it. … Then, for the first time I started talking more about it and feeling like I’m supposed to use my story to help other people.”

She said completing her Bachelor of Applied Science degree from Siena Heights University’s Online Learning Program in May 2015 was also a watershed moment for her. Kozel said she considered it a tremendous accomplishment just being able to walk across the stage to accept her diploma.

“It just feels like I’ve been trying to fight for my education for so many years,” said Kozel, who resides in Madison, Ohio. “There’s been so many times that I had to drop out of a program or classes because I end up in the hospital. Everyone would just tell me that I needed to get some rest. Start again next semester. Start again next year. I’ve been doing that all my life. … I’m never going to get better, so rest isn’t going to help me.

“It was one of the best feelings to actually complete my degree. That was a big moment. Siena Heights was just the beginning of my life falling into place.”

She is already eyeing her next hike: the 2,659-mile Pacific Crest Trail in the western U.S.

“The more I spend away from the trail, and the more I recover, the more I think I want to do it,” Kozel said. “The best way to share your message is to keep walking.”


Angela Bidlack

That is a “Wow”!!!! That trail is not for the faint of heart under all circumstances but to do it with many challenges is phenomenal!!

Kozel could have wallowed in her illnesses but she shows what determination can lead one to. A true inspiration.

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