Today, while driving to yet another doctor’s appointment in Philadelphia, I noticed a man, probably in his mid-thirties, attempting to cross a busy intersection while in a wheelchair. What caught my eye wasn’t the wheelchair itself, but this man had a young girl, probably two or three years old, sitting on his lap. Immediately I was overcome with emotion as tears filled my eyes. I looked over towards my husband and said out loud, “that could be you, that could have very well been you with our Zeke!” A look of bewilderment came upon his face, one that neglected to recall all he’s overcome these past two and a half years as he has battled his way back on the mat.
My husband, Richard Perry, Senior-level and world-class wrestler, 2018 National Team Member at 86kgs, my best friend, Pennsylvania Regional Training Center athlete and father of our three beautiful children, was injured in a horrific incident on August 27th, 2018, while training with US Marines at a National Team Training Camp. The injuries he sustained left him completely paralyzed for months, unable to speak, to move, to eat on his own, left with permanent brain damage, and lasting effects that would bring most men to their knees. He often forgets the prognosis given to us time and time again, one that seemed more like a promise than a probability, that he would be bedridden and, at best, in a wheelchair for the remainder of his life.
While almost three years ago, it seems like just yesterday, our entire world was turned upside down in the blink of an eye. I would be lying if I didn’t tell you the drama and details of the actual incident would make for a riveting read. However, I want to tell of an untold story, a piece of the puzzle that is truly remarkable.
It was August 30th, 2018, just a few days after my husband’s initial injury in California. I was sitting in the waiting room in the ICU while the National Team members and coaches visited with an unconscious Richard Perry; I’m certain some of which, thought it would be the last time they ever saw him alive. At this point, the doctors were trying to convince me Richard wasn’t going to make it, and if he did survive, he would have to live out his days in a hospital bed. They warned me to prepare for the worst and asked me to come to grips with reality. My husband always had an unshakable faith, so while he was unable to speak life into this grim situation, in an attempt to make him proud, I clung to that very faith, praying for a miracle. Instead, every day upon my return to the hospital, I was met with more bad news; infections, fevers, lack of response, inability to swallow, seizures, meningitis. My reality was quickly becoming my worst nightmare as all of our dreams and plans we once looked forward to, were crumbling all around us. Yet there I sat, with a smile on my face and hope in my heart, praying that these men visiting, these brothers of his, his teammates, would say something, do something that would somehow help him, that would wake him up, would fix him. I just needed to know he was still in there; I needed to know our children would be able to see their father again, that I would be able to hear, “I love you,” once more.
I looked up and saw a familiar face, one Rich had introduced me to several times over the past year at various Senior level tournaments; a man Richard greatly admired and always had incredible things to say when he spoke of him, Assistant Coach and Manager of Freestyle Programs, Coach Joe Russell. He sat beside me and asked if he could share something with me.I had no idea how his words, his story, would forever change our lives.
“Gina, I don’t know if Richard ever told you about me, but when I was in high school, I was in a very serious motorcycle accident. I’ve never quite understood why I was chosen for this position at USA Wrestling, but I know now God has put me here for this specific purpose,” he was so sincere and you could tell by the expression on his face and the tone in his voice, the words he would speak next would bring hope, the very hope I would cling to for weeks, months and even years to come.
Coach Russell went on to tell me of his own brain injury that left a portion of his brain on the concrete floor of his high school parking lot. He told me of the grim prognosis the doctors gave his parents and his brother, fellow wrestler, Dan Russell. He shared with me the pain and the fears of his family, that this once prominent, successful high school wrestler would never again talk or walk, would never again leave his hospital bed. Coach told me of his brother Dan, who, with a fighting spirit, would not accept this news or the possibility that Joe wasn’t going to be around to grow up with him. Instead, he fought and he prayed and he pushed his brother.
Joe warned me that it would first be worse before it got any better. He shared with me the pain, the disappointment and the trials he had to face during his recovery. Then, he shared with me the victories: the first eye movements, the first words he uttered to his brother. He shared the moments of his first steps, the pain but success of his first run, and he shared his first few attempts at wrestling again. Coach explained while he was in the hospital, he would only respond to one person, his brother Dan. He shared that while in the hospital, he heard Dan speaking to him; he was just unable to respond. Most importantly, he told me Richard was still in there, that wrestlers are built differently, that Richard was made differently, that he knew whatever God had planned, He would see it through, and He would see our family through.
For the first time in almost a week since Richard’s injuries, I was given actual hope. I had something I could cling to, something I could look forward to. I finally had the option to hold an expectation other than death. For me, that was enough. In the weeks and months to follow, the details Coach Russell shared of his own experience unfolded in our story as Richard began to respond but only to Zeke, our 5-month-old son. Richard would start by tracking us with his eyes and then slowly, he began to move his fingers on his right hand. He uttered an “I love you,” and ignited a deep fire of hope and faith once more.
What seemed like the entire wrestling community from all over the world, rallied behind our family, behind Richard. They shared similar stories filled with trials and tribulations, but when met with faith and support, became stories of overcoming and perseverance. These very stories continued to give our own family hope, and served as great inspiration.
As time passed, we rode the unexpected roller coaster of recovery until Richard was able to have the brain surgery necessary to remove the portion of his skull that penetrated into his brain. When we headed back to Philadelphia, Richard spent nearly three more months in an inpatient facility learning how to talk, learning to move his left hand, use his fingers and control his arms. He had to learn how to walk, write, read, chew, shower, cook, climb stairs, hold a conversation, etc. It was in this hospital that Coach Joe Russell drove from DC to visit Richard and spend time with him. I was unable to be present during his visit, but I’m sure Joe discovered that he was right all along; Richard was built differently, as most wrestlers are, he knew Richard would meet head-on and overcome every obstacle placed before him, just as he did himself. Believe me, my husband did just that; he accepted every challenge given to him by doctors, therapists and nursing staff.
This husband, father of three, and once-rising wrestler was told he would most likely never walk again, and upon hearing his fate, he challenged himself to overcome, and was determined to walk out of the hospital. On November 16th, 2018, around 11am, Richard Perry, unassisted, walked out of his hospital room, into an elevator, down the hallway and into our car! His determination and perseverance met with faith and hope, led to what we believe, are modern-day miracles.
After countless doctors appointments, cognitive, speech and physical therapies, and specialized strength and mobility sessions, in December of 2020, Richard Perry returned to the mat and began to train once again with his Coach Brandon Slay and the rest of the Pennsylvania Regional Training Center in Philadelphia.
We aren’t certain what comes next, no one truly is, but we are aware it takes just one pivotal moment, one incredible conversation to change circumstances, to inspire belief and create hope. Today, I wanted to share our story with you in the hope that it inspires you to keep fighting, keep pushing forward and to never limit yourself. Soon, I will share the untold stories of many wrestlers at every level, from across the nation. You see, Coach Russell was absolutely correct, wrestlers are built differently, they overcome on and off the mat.