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Paralyzed learn to scuba dive in Hershey

by MONICA VON DOBENECK, Of The Patriot-News
Tuesday June 02, 2009, 3:29 PM

Chris Fidler is lifted out of the pool at the Hershey recreation center, with the help of Casey Harthorn, right, a volunteer with the Cody Unser First Step Foundation, Tuesday. Local disabled veterans and children were invited to learn to SCUBA dive at the pool. The event was organized by Cody Unser, the paralyzed daughter of NASCAR racer Al Unser Junior.

Shelly White said she's more of an academic than an athlete. Since she was paralyzed in a powered parachute accident in 2001, she has been focusing on her job teaching at Ebenezer Elementary School, writing a children's book about spinal cord injuries and pursuing her doctorate.

She wasn't sure she wanted to try scuba diving. She thought she'd just watch.

But the instructors at the Hershey Recreation Center pool with the Cody Unser First Step Foundation Tuesday were persuasive. White, of Cornwall, was soon fitted with a wet suit and was being lowered gently into the pool, a nervous grin on her face.

Other paralyzed people at the event were more sports oriented and were eager to add a new form of recreation to their roster.

Cody Unser, the daughter of racing legend Al Unser Jr., was paralyzed by transverse myelitis when she was 12. She has become a spokesperson for stem cell research and started a national movement to teach people with disabilities to scuba dive.

The premiere of a documentary based on her life is scheduled for 8 p.m. tonight at the Hershey Theater for $25, preceded by a gala hosted by racing legend Mario Andretti and his wife. The documentary will be shown on PBS sometime in July.

Unser said from the edge of the Hershey pool that scuba diving has given her confidence and freedom from her wheelchair. She said she has also noticed increased sensation in the lower part of her body since she started diving.

Joining Unser and the others in the pool were two of her doctors from Johns Hopkins - Douglas Kerr and Adam Kaplin. Kerr said the psychological benefits of such activities are great, but studies have also shown that the activities trigger physical repairs in the nervous system. He hopes to run more scuba clinics for the disabled while measuring changes in neurology in a rigorous way.

White, who emerged from the water looking shocked at her own nerve, said she'd like to try it again.

"Initially, it was completely scary," she said. "It took a while to trust my instructor. At the end, I was overwhelmed with emotion more than anything else."