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Learning to walk again

Seated on a wicker sofa, he struggled to stand, extending his arm to gain balance.

To get to where he is now, he said, he's needed patience, determination and although he takes each step alone, support.

Jordan Wilhelm-Delaurier doesn't seem the type to need walking as-sistance. Even with fit limbs and a sharp mind, he concentrates on each stride, balancing himself with a walking cane. He jokes that he can't walk and chew gum at the same time.

"After sitting for a while you can get kind of stiff," the 19-year-old said as he returned to his seat turning a half circle in six steps -- a feat most people could complete in two. "But definitely, definitely improved."

For months, he has worked to regain the coordination and balance required to put one Nike-shoed foot in front of the other.

It wasn't always like this.

A motorcycle accident 18 months ago shattered two discs in Jordan's spine and fractured another -- rendering him paralyzed from the chest down.

Jordan, a St. John's Academy graduate, moved to California in 2001. He was in Jamestown recently, visiting family and friends before embarking on weeks of biking across the country.

Medical personnel said he'd never walk again, said his mother, Judy Delaurier.

"One thing we've learned from this is never believe what you're told," Judy said.

Beating the odds

"I couldn't even handle the phone call," Judy said of the woman from Glen Hellen Raceway notifying her of Jordan's accident -- from which he was air-lifted to the nearest emergency room. A neighbor drove her to Jordan, who'd been induced into a coma.

The crash was so severe, Jordan's fellow riders were told he didn't survive.

"It was definitely weird to think that's what they were told," he said.

An avid athlete -- Jordan dreamed of a profession in the sport of 200-foot jumps and racing through an enclosed dirt track.

"That's what I went to bed for every night and that's what I woke up for," he said.

The day of the crash -- Jan. 27, 2007 -- 17 year-old Jordan practiced at the motocross track in San Bernadino, Calif., for the Canadian National tournament held that summer.

Jordan said he doesn't remember the crash. He doesn't remember anything until about a week or so later.

Lying in the bed, unable to move, Jordan said he can still see the hospital's white ceiling and the thoughts he mulled over in his head.

"Will I ever be back to normal? Will I ever be able to do what I want to do?" he remembered.

Doctors and nurses said patients like Jordan won't walk again, and most don't, said Dr. Lance Altenau, a neurosurgeon for Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego, Calif. who performed Jordan's surgery. Chances of recovery are 1 in 100 to 1 in 1,000, Altenau said.

"Once you're this bad, you just don't get better," he said.

But with the use of a wheelchair, medical experts told Jordan he could learn adaptive living skills. For the Delauriers, that wouldn't be good enough.

"We knew he would get something back," Judy said, saying Jordan was removed from the spinal chord rehabilitation center to a stroke victim center where physicians worked more with re-teaching and rebuilding the body rather than living with an injury.

"I couldn't really do that," Jordan said of living without walking or riding again, "Because that's not what I wanted in life."

Paul Delaurier, Jordan's stepfather, knew Jordan could get better. He'd seen it before.

A technician for a professional race team, Paul had seen people with similar injuries. One had even recovered. As soon as he was on the next flight home, Paul was making phone calls finding the best doctors for Jordan.

And with those names, the Delauriers packed their bags and moved into an RV they parked in Sharp Grossmont Hospital's parking lot.

For about five months, Judy and Paul lived in the RV, attending therapy sessions with Jordan, supporting his efforts and supporting his feet as therapists re-taught him to walk.

Jordan's dad, Jeff Wilhelm, drove to the hospital (about a 90 minute drive) each day while Jordan received treatment.

"He's still recovering more every week. He hasn't plateaued yet," he said.

But Jordan still has work to do.

"I wake every day, still, you know, praying he'll have a full recovery," Judy said. "And that's my prayer every night before I go to bed."

Steps for mankind

Today, Jordan struggles to stand on a bad day, but on a good day, can walk between rooms unassisted.

"I've seen glimpses of hope that I think I can be walking with nothing," he said, saying he spends 40 hours a week -- and $2,800 a month -- in therapy.

"He works his butt off on it all the time," Paul said.

Sometimes, Jordan feels "bummed out." But giving up is not an option.

"There's never been a time when I said I'd quit," he said.

To prove critics wrong and to inspire people with injuries like his, Jordan is biking across the United States -- from Salt Lake City to Washington, D.C. -- as part of the Rise Above U.S. Bicycle Tour.

The tour, originated by Aaron Baker, 29, who suffered a spinal chord injury about nine years ago, said the tour would be difficult for someone with healthy legs, but for two men with spinal chord injuries, movement in general is a challenge.

"If we didn't have a spinal chord injury, we'd definitely be doing the Tour de France," Baker said.

Paul and Judy said they support Jordan's efforts.

"Whatever he wants to do in life," Paul said, "I'm always there for him."

As part of the tour, the two will speak at hospitals and schools sharing their stories and spreading hope.

"Now that life has dealt us a different hand of cards, we're accepting the challenge," Baker said of the pair's M.O.

That philosophy can apply to anything, Jordan said, not just spinal chord injuries. He wants to give people hope.

"Sometimes, I think you've got to make your own hope," he said.

The goal is to raise money for a therapy center called C.O.R.E. -- Center of Rehabilitative Exercise -- a facility designed to offer affordable help to victims of various injuries and ailments recover.

Currently, one is open in Los Angeles -- where Baker lives -- but the two hope the center will open locations in every major city. It scares him to think of how many people are out there, Jordan said, who could heal if given the chance.

Judy agreed. Like Jordan, most people with similar injuries need support, determination and resources.

"They would be better, I know it in my heart," Judy said.

Everyone should be given the chance to recover, Jordan said. One day, spinal chord injuries could just be another injury.

"I think its going to be a big step in the right direction," he said.

Down recovery road

Jordan isn't sure about his future past the Rise Above Tour, which is expected to end by September, but he hasn't given up on his dream of riding in motocross races.

"Once you find something in life that you love," Jordan said of the sport, "You'll do anything to do it."

And with his family's support, he just might, Judy said.

"I told Jordan I'd be at the finish line, cheering him on."

For more information on the Rise Above U.S. Bicycle Tour, visit www.riseabovetour.com or on the C.O.R.E. Center, visit www.corecenters.org. To read Jordan's blog of the tour, visit www.jordan111.com.

Sun reporter Katie Ryan can be reached at 701-952-8454 or by e-mail at kryan@jamestownsun.com