ST PAUL, Minn. – A group of aerial athletes recently tested their limits at the Twin Cities Trapeze Center, gracefully spinning from suspended ropes, and swinging 22 feet in the air.
These performers were unlike any the Twin Cities Trapeze Center had ever hosted.
They are paralyzed, knowing movement mostly by wheelchair.
The opportunity to overcome obstacles high in the air started as an idea over Facebook, after many in the aerialist community learned about a California performer's paralyzing trapeze accident.
Tresa Honaker, a renowned aerialist from Grass Valley, California, came back to her native Minnesota to try to get back in the air for the first time since her accident in Janurary of 2012. Honaker was practicing a fabric routine and fell 15 feet, landing head first and severing her spine.
"It was extremely sad for me and I said, oh no, not this," said Honaker. "I knew right away I had done something really bad. It was like an electric shock had gone up through my spine. I didn't have the wrap taut properly. I literally shot myself into the ground, I did something and it didn't catch me."
In Minnesota, Elizabeth Skwiot understood the sadness. She owns an aerial Pilates company called Aerialates. Skwiot only knew Honaker by Facebook, and invited Honaker home to Minnesota to get back in the air for the first time.
"I love aerial work, I love it, so to see people hurt by it and come back to it," said Skwiot. "I think in some ways you could see the chair or paralysis as an obstacle, but you could also see it as an opportunity because anytime you have a limitation creatively it forces you in some ways to be more creative, so I am excited to see what we can do."
Two other performers with spinal cord injuries also joined in to experiment with trapeze and aerial movement to once again feel the freedom of flight.
Dwayne Scheuneman is the owner of a Florida dance company, but was visiting Minnesota to teach adaptive dance classes. He was injured in a diving accident in 1995.
"The first time I ever got out of my chair and started flying, so I loved it," said Scheuneman, who is paralyzed from the chest down.
Angelique Lele, of Minneapolis, embraced the first chance to climb. She was paralyzed in a static trapeze fall in June of 2012.
"Listen. It's not always great. I am not going to lie to you, but if I sat in how bad it could be then I would miss something like this coming along, and this is an opportunity that is to me – amazing," said Lele. "I still love the sport. It gave me so much and I think it will continue to give me so much."
Lele climbed 22 feet into the air and swung from the flying trapeze, with the help of the center's owners, Katie and Jake Kimball. A serene smile appeared on her face as she stepped off the platform, held the bar tightly in her hands, and left her pain behind.
"It feels like recess when you are a kid. You just close your eyes and just go," said Lele. "This girl wants to fly."
All of the paralyzed athletes learned discovery can be stronger than any disability. Honaker ended her performance with her wheels in the air, attached to bungee cords, swinging high in a brave ballet.
"It's the lightest wheelchair in the world – its 10 pounds – total. My idea was this could give my legs a place strap them in and see how much I can start going up again," said Honaker, who said she was able to afford her wheelchair after a grant from the Challenged Athletes Foundation.
Honaker is the founder of the Air Aligned aerial dance group, and still teaches classes. She said she's gaining strength by rehabilitation and physical therapy at SCI-Fit, a California clinic specializing in the rehabilitation for spinal cord injuries.
"It's an injury, but people treat it like a sentence. Because it's not life threatening like cancer, it doesn't get a lot of focus of curing it and healing it," said Honaker.
The experience at the Twin Cities Trapeze Center was further proof, the sentence has lifted.
"You live your life in motion and then all of the sudden part of your body is unplugged, so it's a life changer. People reaching out allowing me to feel those thing again, that freedom of mobility, it's huge," said Honaker.