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Living Well With MS: The Healing Power of Adventure and Community

By: Emily "Red" Reilly

Growing up in the beautiful mountains of Flagstaff, Arizona, a love for the outdoors and staying active was instilled in me at a young age. Not only did I love the outdoors, I found so much joy and pride in being an athlete that I dreamed of becoming a college soccer player one day. I was drawn to team sports because I loved the community aspect and having to work together as a cohesive team to achieve goals. Little did I know, these fundamental aspects of staying active and being in community would become keys to living well with multiple sclerosis and ultimately, introduce me to the First Descents family.

It was in October of 2005 at the age of 17 when my goal of becoming a collegiate soccer player would come true. I signed a 4-year soccer scholarship with Dallas Baptist University. Not only was I in the best shape of my life, I knew what my future was going to look like: living my dream of being that college soccer player. I had no idea that my dream life was about to change forever.  It was only a month later that I heard the words “Emily, you have multiple sclerosis.” 

It was like any day at soccer practice, running sprints and doing drills. But for me, each sprint was an unusual challenge. My legs felt so heavy, and my endurance was just not there. We decided to go get a few tests done to see what was going on, not realizing these tests would give us an answer we never anticipated.

I remember receiving those MRI results like it was yesterday. My parents sat me down on the couch to share that the MRI showed multiple lesions on my spine, confirming a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, a disease I knew nothing about.

As I sat on the couch taking in this information, I was overcome with fear, anger, frustration, confusion, and defeat. I am only 17, what does this diagnosis mean for me? Will I be able to stay active? What about my soccer scholarship? All these questions flooded my mind and I found myself at a fork in the road. I could either allow this diagnosis to define who I am, discourage me and accept defeat, or I could take this disease head on with faith and determination, and refuse to let it stop me from pursuing my goals and dreams. 

“I could either allow this diagnosis to define who I am, discourage me and accept defeat, or I could take this disease head on with faith and determination, and refuse to let it stop me from pursuing my goals and dreams.” 

Growing up as an athlete, quitting was never an option, so I decided to take this diagnosis on by partnering with an MS specialist to help me manage my disease and learn how to continue living life to the fullest, even with MS. When I asked if I could still go play soccer, my neurologist said enthusiastically, “YES! The most important thing for you to do is to stay active, so don’t let MS stop you!” This was the most encouraging news I could hear, and it gave me confidence as I began my journey of living with MS. I went on to play all 4 years of college soccer and even became an All-American goalkeeper. These successes are not just accolades, they are proof to show that MS didn’t have to stop me from doing the things I love!

Shortly after graduating from college, I got married and began to pursue a career in the fitness industry. Knowing how much staying active had benefited me physically, mentally and emotionally both before and after my diagnosis, I became a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor to create adaptive workouts for the MS community and to show them that no matter what their limitations are they CAN keep moving! The thing I love the most about these classes is that I get to bring people living with MS together in community while showing them how beneficial staying active is and how it can be accessible for anyone at any level of ability. Remember those key fundamentals I mentioned earlier: community and staying active? These are HUGE when it comes to living well with MS and that is where First Descents (FD) comes into my story. 

“I became a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor to create adaptive workouts for the MS community and to show them that no matter what their limitations are they CAN keep moving!”

“When I first learned about FD from a former soccer teammate’s dad, I really thought it was too good to be true.”

When I first learned about FD from a former soccer teammate’s dad, I really thought it was too good to be true. Outdoor adventures for young adults living with MS? Community and staying active? My two favorite things in one?! YES PLEASE! So, when the opportunity to go skiing in Crested Butte with other young adults living with MS presented itself, there was no way I was going to miss out. To learn more about my experience, you can read about it HERE. It was a week that I will never forget, and it confirmed the beauty and power of healing through adventure and community! Not only did this trip make me feel empowered as I showed MS who’s boss, it also reminded me that I am not alone in my journey of living with MS. 

It has been 16 years since I was diagnosed with MS and I can say that MS has not stopped me! It has slowed me down and made me learn how to listen to my body and know my limits, but it has also given me a newfound appreciation for the little things. I have learned the importance of staying active and resting and giving myself grace on those days when my energy levels are low or my muscles are feeling too tired to accomplish simple tasks. I have come to find the beauty and blessing of meeting someone living with MS and feeling so seen and understood knowing that I am not alone on this journey.

My question to you is: do you (or someone you know) live with MS? Know that you are not alone on this journey my friend and you have the opportunity to not only show MS who’s boss through physical activity and outdoor adventure, but you will also enter into a community of people who are in the same boat as you. You are stronger than MS and take Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice and “do something that scares you every day” and sign up for one of the 2022 programs coming up. You won’t regret it.

 

 

Adventure with us in 2022!

Are you ready to experience the healing power of adventure? 2022 programs are right around the corner. Join young adults living with MS, young adults impacted by cancer, caregivers and healthcare workers for a week-long adventure program #OutLivingIt.

All of our programs are 100% free of cost, adaptive, and no prior experience in the activity is necessary. Travel scholarships are available upon request, and all food, lodging, gear and instruction is provided. So, inquire here to find the best program for you and stay up to date on future 2022 program announcements!

Thanks to our partners!

A special thanks to Emily “Red” Reilly and her team at the National MS Society (NMSS), who continue to support our work and empower the MS community to out live their diagnoses by providing countless resources for staying active and cultivating wellness habits that accommodate all ability levels.

Click here to learn more about the NMSS’s Living Well With MS initative.

These programs are made possible by the generous support of Velocity Global and Genentech.

 

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