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Born and raised in South Africa, Gary Coetzee began playing rugby at the age of five. He became so enamored with the sport that he competed semi-professionally in France for many years. After leaving the pro circuit and arriving in the US, he continued to enjoy the sport…playing recreationally and serving as a youth coach with the Great Falls Youth Rugby Club, which he started in 2011.
He was doing what he loved when his life changed forever in 2013. “I was in the middle of a game when I nearly died after a freak accident. It resulted in a spinal cord injury that left me unable to walk,” Gary explains.
He initially spent months in a hospital, where he learned to stand up again. When he returned home, he started focusing on learning to live with his disability. He turned to MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital, which is noted for its comprehensive spinal cord injury program.
“When I started working with the therapists there, I couldn’t walk on my own,” he says. “I was very fortunate that my spinal cord was not severed. So, with a lot of hard work and persistence from both my therapists and me, I was eventually able to walk unassisted.”
His experience at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital motivated Gary and his wife, Theresa, to organize the first Great Falls Rugby Tournament nearly a year after his accident. The tournament, held annually, raises money to support the Adaptive Sports Program at the hospital—a program designed to facilitate healthy lifestyles for those with physical disabilities that is offered free of charge.
“We wanted to give back to the hospital and the therapists who helped me,” Gary says. “I credit most of the progress I’ve made, especially early on, to the care I received. I’m truly grateful to everyone who helped me.”
Today, he has progressed beyond his wildest dreams. Now, back on the field again as a coach, Gary and Great Falls Youth Rugby have raised more than $10,000 through the tournament to support the Adaptive Sports Program. “I want people with spinal cord injury to know that there is hope. You can’t give up. You have to do as much as you can for yourself. I hope my story inspires them.”
Click here to learn more about the Adaptive Sports and Fitness program at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital.