Three years after accident, Corey Obungen graduates college, enjoying life

Federal Way resident Corey Obungen recently graduated from the University of Puget Sound with a degree in exercise science just three years after an accident in Hawaii left him paralyzed.  - Courtesy photo
Federal Way resident Corey Obungen recently graduated from the University of Puget Sound with a degree in exercise science just three years after an accident in Hawaii left him paralyzed.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Corey Obungen acts just like your normal, run-of-the-mill college graduate.

Just like any other recent grad, Obungen is filling out job applications in an attempt to start a new phase of his life. It's a step that most people dread, especially nowadays, considering the job market.

But it's actually a process that Obungen is relishing. The Federal Way resident is ready to take that next step in his life. He is hitting the ground running after graduating from the University of Puget Sound earlier this month with a degree in exercise science.

The 22-year-old has the goal of becoming a teacher at one of the four Federal Way high schools.

"I'm just trying to find work," Obungen said. "I want to teach in the sciences, chemistry, or biology or something like that. I want to teach more than ever. I'm just trying to get my feet wet."

But Obungen isn't your average UPS grad. Obungen hasn't been able to move his legs for three years.

Everything changed for Obungen on June 6, 2010. That's when the Todd Beamer High School graduate and winner of 11 letters for the Titans had recently finished his first year at UPS. Obungen was on a summer vacation at Lanikai Beach in Hawaii a couple of months before starting his second season on the Logger football team as an undersized defensive back.

The family vacation took an immediate turn for the worst. Obungen dove into the surf and shattered the C-5 vertebra in his neck. The freak accident left him without any movement in his legs and very limited movement in his upper body.

Obungen remains paralyzed just below his arms. But his go-for-it attitude is still in full effect. Obungen hasn't let the accident affect how he lives his life.

Since that fateful day in Hawaii, Obungen has not only graduated from college, but also relearned how to drive a car. He finished the Advancing Leadership community program in Federal Way, among many other things. He even has a girlfriend, whom he met at UPS. He is back to lifting weights, just like he did before being paralyzed.

"Everything is great," Obungen said. "I'm just taking it day-by-day and enjoying life."

Obungen has effectively taken the mentality of an athlete about conquering anything that is put in front of him, no matter the circumstances. That's because he wasn't just an average 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.

Football wasn’t the only sport in which he excelled. Obungen was a rare three-sport athlete and earned 11 out of a possible 12 letters during high school. He was a district qualifier as a long jumper for the Titan track team and competed at the Mat Classic state wrestling championships as a 130-pound senior.

"He uses the discipline he gained being a three-sport athlete to tackle everything," said Teri Hickel, executive director of Advancing Leadership, which is an intensive community program developed by the Federal Way Chamber of Commerce.

"It’s been challenging for him, but he has accomplished more than most and certainly a tremendous amount given his new normal life."

Obungen's life got even more "normal" in February when he retook his driver's license test and passed with a near-perfect 98 percent. He drives a Toyota Sienna minivan that is fully-equipped with a wheelchair lift and controls on the steering wheel, which Obungen uses to gas and brake, among other things.

"I actually failed the first time I took the test when I was 16 years old," he said. "I did better this time around in my huge van. I can't believe I could parallel park with it."

Graduation day was also a special one for Obungen. Not only did he receive his bachelor's degree, but he was honored with the Joseph Peyton Achievement Award. The award recognizes the senior who "demonstrates genuine enthusiasm for and love of discipline, who leads by example, and who exhibits high academic achievement within the major."

"It was very humbling because my peers within the department are amazing in their own way," Obungen said. "But graduation was surreal. It made me realize how far I've come since my injury and how lucky I am to have family, friends, classmates, professors and faculty that have supported me along the way. It was real, real awesome."

Obungen's entire education at UPS, which is not a cheap school, has been paid for by numerous grants and scholarships. The biggest of those came from, which awarded Obungen $30,000 during the past three years.

It's still Obungen's ultimate goal to walk again, but he isn't obsessed with the possibility. Doctors aren’t making any promises.

"We all expect new breakthroughs in spinal cord injuries but, until that happens, he continues to inspire and amaze everyone around him," said Hickel.

"They give you a two-year window," Obungen said. "Nerves in the spinal cord don't regenerate. So, if it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, it doesn't. I just need to maximize what I have. I'm sure one day it will happen. There is so much research now. In the meantime, I'm just doing what I want to do."


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