Fifteen months after being declared a tetraplegic, Australian BMX cycling star Sam Willoughby is preparing to walk his bride down the aisle in an emotional New Year’s Eve wedding.
Willoughby, who continues to defy a US doctor’s dire prognosis following his life-changing training accident in 2015, will marry his American sweetheart Alise Post before 180 family and friends in San Diego.
The 26-year-old London Olympics silver medallist and two-time world champion will wear special locked-in knee braces that help him to stand on his big day.
And he aims to do a bit more than that.
“I’m sort of able to shuffle out there a little bit, so that’s the plan,” Willoughby told AAP on Friday.
“That’s been the last month I’ve been doing that every day. It’s been a lot of work to get to that point.
“I’ve pictured it in my mind since the day I proposed to her but I’m sure it will be more emotional and nerve-wracking when I actually get there.
“I’m just very happy that I’ll be able to be vertical at the ceremony with Alise and just enjoy the day as much as possible.”
Willoughby strongly believes he will walk independently again after making extraordinary progress since suffering fractures to his C6 and C7 vertebrae that severely compressed his spinal cord and left him with no movement below the chest.
Already he has graduated from riding a stationary bike to crawling, then kneeling and standing with the aid of his braces.
As well as shuffle, he can do squats, drive a car and has even been go-karting.
With six two-hour sessions weekly with physical therapists plus his own gym work and a focus on diet and nutrition, Willoughby is training as much now as when he was competing.
“Probably more even, I would say,” he said.
“It’s one of those things when it’s your life, your freedom, it means almost a little bit more.
“I value life now more than ever and I probably overdo it a little bit sometimes, but I’m just trying to do everything I can to be healthy and keep moving forward.
“I’ve already made gains that they said I never would and my ultimate goal is to be out of the wheelchair one day.”
Willoughby’s family aren’t the least surprised by his determination and progress.
“The sport of BMX, you need to be pretty mentally tough. You train hard, you tick all the boxes but that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed an outcome,” his mother Sharon said.
“So it’s a bit like that with rehab.”
The school teacher is immensely proud of her son and fiancee Post, a Rio Olympics silver medallist herself.
“They’re just a remarkable couple together. The support and the energy they get from each other and the positivity is just amazing in itself,” she said.
Willoughby living a ‘normal life’
Willoughby’s recovery to the point that he also cooks and lives as normal a life as possible is all the more remarkable considering he was given no hope of such progress immediately after the accident.
“They said what he was, he was,” his mother says.
“It’s 15 months in and if you look at some little babies, they’re standing but they still need to hang on to something and they’re not that stable on their feet, but they can stand,” she said.
“There’s definite movement there. Messages are getting through. I figure the next year’s going to be very interesting,” she said.