Most nights, you’re likely to find Karen Cassette hoisting weights at the CrossFit Casco Bay in Portland, ME, with Team Panora. The 47-year-old powerlifter heads to the gym after her day working as a client manager for an insurance company.

But 11 years ago, her life looked very different. Coming down the stairs at her home in February 2006, her cat darted beneath her feet; she stumbled and plummeted backward down the entire flight, banging her head and neck on the wooden treads as she went.

Surprisingly, Cassette was able to stand back up and walk around, feeling minimal pain. Over the next few months, however, she began to have difficulty walking and experienced vertigo, muscle spasms, facial tics, and nausea. Her right leg was partially paralyzed. After six months, her doctors delivered the bad news: As a result of the fall, her spinal cord was severely—and irreversibly—damaged.

Road to Recovery

When her neurosurgeon recommended cervical fusion, Cassette initially resisted. But the surgeon explained that without this corrective surgery, she was on the way to being fully paralyzed within the next six months. Cassette—who was very active pre-accident, running and even playing semipro football on a women’s team—was crushed. “I couldn’t get beyond my diagnosis,” she says.

She underwent two surgeries, where doctors fused three vertebrae in her neck together. Over the next several months, Cassette began pushing boundaries in physical therapy sessions. Her doctors told her she couldn’t maintain her high fitness levels, and during physical therapy, she started to believe them. But deep down, Cassette says, “I was determined that I could be all that I wanted.”

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It took four hard years of work before Cassette was able to walk back into a gym, and along the way she battled depression and what she calls an “emotional paralysis.” She ended a failing marriage and began to shift to a more positive focus. “I wanted to reclaim myself. Life was calling me.” 

Gaining Strength

Finally, in 2011, Cassette found herself back at the gym, carrying an extra  50 pounds on her body after five years of inactivity. She was no stranger to strength training, having lifted weights as part of her training for football. She started off with light weights and walking on the treadmill. But she began to increase the weights and eventually started running. “I kept my focus on each and every workout, one day at a time,” she recalls.

Cassette kept building on her training, and completed her first figure competition in 2012. She was inspired to set her next goal of training for a powerlifting competition, hiring a trainer who could help with modifications for exercises that would not further damage her neck or spinal cord. Last March, she entered the Maine Women’s Powerlifting Championship Meet, her first competition, where she benched 143.6 pounds. Her new goal is to bench 185 pounds and deadlift 250 pounds.

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Cassette now trains five days a week for an hour and a half each session, adding extra time pre-competition. She follows a clean diet, changing around her macros and calories every eight weeks and eating five times a day, drinking a gallon of water daily. “My current doctor thinks it’s a complete miracle that I’m lifting weights,” she says. On his advice, however, she is not allowed to perform back squats, which would exert too much pressure and compression on her spine.

She also competes in 30 to 40 5K races a year. “My right leg still isn’t 100%. It drags when I’m tired or do too much lifting, or when it’s damp and cold. Sometimes it just buckles. I still get tingling sensations down my right arm and nausea.” Because of her near-crippling experience, Cassette is empathetic to those unable to run at all.

She volunteers with an organization called IR4, a nonprofit that links athletes of all levels with kids and adults with physical or mental disabilities. Cassette is matched with a 10-year-old wheelchair-bound boy named Carter from Ontario, Canada, and hopes to soon run a race with him, pushing his wheelchair. “My hope is that my passion and energy somehow pour out of me in a way that will inspire others to follow their hearts, dreams, and passions as well,” Cassette says. “After all is said and done, we’re really all in this same race together!”

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