A year later, Corey Obungen is still fighting the fight

Corey Obungen, pictured with his sister, Codie, was named the Most Inspirational Athlete at the University of Puget Sound in the spring. Obungen was paralyzed in June 2010 diving into the surf in Hawaii.  - Courtesy photo
Corey Obungen, pictured with his sister, Codie, was named the Most Inspirational Athlete at the University of Puget Sound in the spring. Obungen was paralyzed in June 2010 diving into the surf in Hawaii.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

It’s been a little over a year since Corey Obungen’s life changed in the blink of an eye.

It was June 6, 2010, and the Todd Beamer High School graduate had recently finished his first year at the University of Puget Sound. The 11-letter winner at Beamer was preparing for his second season on the Logger football team as an undersized defensive back.

Obungen was at Lanikai Beach in Hawaii on a vacation with his family when he dove into the surf. The dive broke his neck, shattering his C-5 vertebra, and left him without any movement in his legs and very limited movement in his upper body.

“I have made a lot of progress in the last year,” Obungen said. “I don’t have a neck brace on anymore and I can actually hold a phone in my hand. It’s went pretty fast, but it also seems like a long time ago. I have a lot of mixed feelings. It’s definitely been a journey and not been easy.”

The goal is still the same for Obungen — to walk again. And the 21-year-old , who has put on 30 pounds in the last year, is working hard at accomplishing something most of us take for granted.

“It’s not coming anytime soon,” he said. “But it will happen. I’m still working toward it and getting stronger and stronger every day.”

Obungen now has a new normal way of life. What he thought was normal before is nothing near it now. Getting dressed, eating food and going out with his buddies are no longer normal.

“I got used to it and I’m fine,” Obungen said. “There has been a lot of adapting and changes. I’m still getting used to stuff, but it’s not all bad.”

Obungen will be entering his third year at UPS in the fall and is on track to graduate with a degree in exercise science. During the 2010-11 school year, he finished with straight A’s in a limited one-class schedule. Obungen has enrolled in three classes at UPS during the first semester, which is a full-time schedule.

“I’m excited to get back on campus,” he said. “I’m thinking I’m ready. I’ve missed just being a student. Having one class, I didn’t really feel like a student. I was done with my class and then I had to go home. I just wanted to stay and feel normal.”

Last year, Obungen applied and was awarded a scholarship for paralyzed students from that is helping with the big-time cost of tuition at UPS. The scholarship awards Obungen $10,000 a year. He has also secured other financial aid, meaning his entire education at UPS will be paid for.

Obungen and his family even took the huge step of traveling back to the scene of the accident earlier this year when they flew first-class back to Hawaii for his cousin’s wedding.

“It kind of closed the deal,” said Obungen’s mother, Shari Kokubun. “It was a difficult trip for all of us.”

Next up for Obungen in his journey to get back to “normal” is being able to drive a car again, which could happen fairly soon. He is currently in the process of getting approval from his rehab doctor to start learning “adaptive driving” though the University of Washington.

Adaptive driving allows persons with a disability to operate a vehicle with only their hands. The steering wheel on the vehicle is also equipped with an accelerator and brake.

But, like everything associated with Obungen’s injuries, money is the issue. For example, the three-hour evaluation class comes with a $1,000 price tag and each ensuing session is $600, according to Kokubun. That doesn’t even include the equipment needed to convert the vehicle for Obungen.

“No insurance covers anything like this,” she said.

The family purchased a conversion van a week after Obungen came home from the hospital, which has a wheelchair ramp and other equipment.

But Obungen’s ultimate goal is to be able to drive the 2009 Honda Civic his mother bought for him days before his accident in Hawaii.

“I have to get my permit again at the Department of Licensing,” he said with a laugh. “I will have to study again for that test, which makes no sense. I feel like a little kid being driven around. It gets kind of old. But I did fail my first driving test, so hopefully I can pass this time.”

Obungen is still attending therapy sessions four nights a week. Two of the nights are spent at Pushing Boundaries, a Redmond-based facility that offers people with spinal cord injuries a place to go to become more independent. His other two nights are spent at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tacoma.

Pushing Boundaries describes itself as a facility that preaches repetition. According to its mission statement, Pushing Boundaries “combats the inactivity that has traditionally been the ‘norm’ for those living with paralysis. New research shows that the more time a person is out of their chair and engaging in aggressive, repetitive movement, the better the chance a person will have at recovering the most function.”

Obungen is now able to stand up on Pushing Boundaries’ robotic treadmill for 45 minutes with assistance and stimulus.

“He does have sensation and we are hoping that at some point soon he will be able to take a couple steps,” Kokubun said. “His upper trunk and core have really stabilized in the last six months.”

“My mobility is getting a little better,” Obungen said. “I can move my hands and can now even play XBox. I still try to be as healthy as I can.”

Obungen wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill athlete during his time at Beamer. He was selected as an all-city defensive back by The Mirror during his senior football season after intercepting four passes for the Titans. He was also named first-team, All-South Puget Sound League South Division by the league’s coaches.

But football wasn’t the only sport in which he excelled. Obungen was a rare three-sport athlete and earned 11 letters at Beamer. Obungen was a district qualifier as a long jumper for the Titan track team and wrestled at the Mat Classic state wrestling championships as a 130-pound senior.

The UPS athletic department also honored Obungen during its yearly award ceremony in the spring. The school named him the Most Inspirational Athlete for the 2010-11 school year.

“It was really, really amazing,” Obungen said. “The speeches the football guys gave were great. They said that it was really inspirational that I came to every game. They said if they have tough times, they think of me. That’s when I kind of realized that I can have an impact.”

“Things are really coming together,” said Kokubun. “We also had to accept it, too. And that was really hard. This is not what we envisioned our son to be at 21. But there are going to be great things happening for him. He is very motivated and can do big things by motivating others.”

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