Wheelchair aside, woman in Ohio climbs on national stage

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Posted at 5:20 PM, Jul 01, 2021

CINCINNATI, Ohio — Exhausted & breathing heavy, Caroline Winstel lies on the floor, motionless. It’s nothing new.

“If I faint, don’t call an ambulance,” Winstel said.

It’s a short glimpse, today, at a life-changing moment 14 years ago. It happened during her first-ever college volleyball practice at Tusculum University in Tennessee.

“I just dropped,” she said. “Next thing I remember, I was on the training table. My eyes couldn’t focus. There were bags of ice all over me, and everyone is talking around me like, ‘What is going to happen?’”

The diagnosis, along with other related conditions, would derail Winstel's volleyball career and change the course of her life.

“The doctor comes in with a print-out from WebMD. It says ‘Rhabdomyolysis,’” she said.

Rhabdomyolysis is a rare and dangerous disease, sometimes linked to other health conditions. Among other symptoms, it can cause the breakdown of muscle tissue and severe exhaustion with any physical activity.

“It was this thing that had a lot of letters,” Winstel said. “I could barely say it – I was not a biology person. It felt like, ‘Why me?’”

She no longer plays volleyball, but she does find ways to compete. Most often, if you find her on the floor exhausted, it’s because she just climbed a 50-foot rock wall.

What's even more impressive is she typically uses a wheelchair to get around.

“People like to put labels like ‘overcoming disability,’” Winstel said. “I like to look at it as living with my disability.”

Winstel trains at “Climb Time” – a gym in Cincinnati.

“I was in awe that someone in a wheelchair was climbing," Brent Flenner, Winstel's climbing coach, said. “I had never seen that outside of paraclimbing stuff on YouTube.”

For Winstel, though, just climbing the wall wasn’t enough. She wanted to be the best in the country.

After training for 10 months, she entered the national paraclimbing championships.

“I gave it my all. I put everything I had out there,” Winstel said.

The top three paraclimbers move on to compete for the national team in the world championships.

Winstel was one of the top climbers in the national competition and was heading into the final day in third place. Had she controlled one more grip, she would’ve finished third place.

Instead, she fell just a half-point short and finished in fourth place.

“It’s been a while since I’ve had this kind of fire inside of me," Winstel said. "I don’t want to lose it. I know climbing is a big part of that.”

Winstel plans to compete in the National Paraclimbing Championships again next year.

The competition is in April 2022.

“When you see somebody roll into the gym on a wheelchair, climb a 50-foot wall with style and grace, and get down and sometimes buckle under her legs – if that doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what will,” Flenner said.

Winstel’s goal isn’t necessarily to inspire anyone. Her primary objective is to prove that people can live happy lives with disabilities and still compete at a high level if they choose.

She also wants to bring awareness to the world of adaptive sports, which she says helped changed her outlook on life.

Caleb Noe at WCPO first reported this story.