Nick Malafronte was just 19 when he was paralyzed in a fall into a shallow swimming hole while working at a summer camp in his hometown of Abington. After hitting his head on the sandy bottom, he lay motionless face-down in the water until he was pulled out by lifeguards. Conscious but unable to move, he was med-flighted to Massachusetts General Hospital.
An accomplished high school athlete who had just completed his freshman year at Westfield State University, he was given a grim prognosis by doctors, who told him he would never walk again and would have very limited use of his arms.
Pictured: Nick, center, checked in with Kathy Gruber, as he and his parents Dianne and Vic Malafronte arrived at the World Indoor Rowing Championships at the Agganis Arena at Boston University in Boston.
But after meeting other quadriplegics and paraplegics who defied their own odds through intense rehabilitation and made progress in their recovery, Nick decided he would take control of his own fate and do whatever he had to do to improve.
He set a goal for himself and told his tearful mom, Diane, that summer: “It’s going to be OK, Mom. I will walk again.’’
Pictured: Nick, center, joked with Glen Picard, director of the ExPD (Exercise for Disabled Persons) Division, as Nick and his parents arrived at the World Indoor Rowing Championships.
That determination is what gets him through each day since he was seriously injured in July 2011. And it’s what spurred the quadriplegic to compete in the adaptive division of this year’s Charles River All Star Has-Beens Sprints World Indoor Rowing Championships at Boston University.
Pictured: Diane helped her son Nick out of his wheelchair and into a rowing machine beside other disabled athletes.
Today, Nick — who can work a stylus for his phone and iPad with good control, feed himself, move his arms up, down, and side to side, and balance in his chair — still has that goal, but he’s working on other targets on a path to get there. Those small accomplishments he has made take a great deal of time, he said.
Pictured: Diane helped her son Nick into a rowing machine beside other disabled athletes.
“It’s sometimes frustrating how slow the progress is. You don’t see results day by day, or even week by week,’’ Nick said. “Progress is measured month by month, and through the little things I do at home, like balance in my chair, feed myself without my arms getting as tired — basic stuff’’ that others take for granted.
Pictured: Nick was fastened into a rowing machine. A timed signal will contract the muscles to extend his legs as he competes with other disabled athletes.
After cheering on the first heat of adaptive rowers, Diane and Nick’s trainer moved him from his wheelchair to the rower, strapped him in, and he took several warm-up strokes. When the announcer counted down to begin, he focused as any athlete does when it counts.
Pictured: Diane, right, keeps an eye on the machine which fires Nick’s leg muscles as he competed with other disabled athletes in the World Indoor Rowing Championships.
For 7 minutes, 13 seconds, Nick pushed and pulled with every working muscle he has, racing against his own clock but also against his Spaulding Rehab buddies, until he reached 1,000 meters. His parents, Vic and Diane, cheered him and other competitors on along with trainers, spectators, and other Spaulding rowers.
Pictured: Nick, right, competed with other disabled athletes, with the help of research assistant Maddie Irwin, to his left, and mother Diane, right, in the World Indoor Rowing Championships.
Arms tired and looking relieved after the exhaustive effort, Nick said: “Last year I finished last in my division with a time of 8:37. I just wanted to beat that this time. I’m happy.’’ He did beat it, shaving more than 1 minute and 20 seconds off. Placing ninth of 11 competitors, he said he wasn’t disappointed because his was the second-highest injury level of anyone there.
Pictured: Nick, right, competed with other disabled athletes, with the help of Irwin, to his left, and mother Diane, right, in the World Indoor Rowing Championships.
“Nick can use his arms even though the doctor said he wouldn’t be able to even move them,’’ said Diane. “That shows you where hard work and determination get you.’’
Pictured: Nick, center, talked to fellow athlete Jared Coppola, right, of North Reading, a friend from the Spalding Rehab Center, at the World Indoor Rowing Championships.