By: Andrea Nay for the Weekly Record Herald
On the snowy night of January 3, 1991, word spread through the close-knit Tipp City community that Tippecanoe sophomore Amanda Vallo had been seriously injured in a car accident on her way home from school. She was a backseat passenger, and the vehicle was struck broadside.
After being flown by Care Flight to Miami Valley Hospital, Vallo, a basketball and volleyball letterwoman and straight-A student, learned she’d fractured her fifth and sixth vertebrae. She could only move her left arm. Dr. John Bors of Miami Valley’s spinal cord injury team explained she had sustained an incomplete lesion. Because the cord was not severed all the way, he hoped there would be room for some level of recovery but could not pinpoint a long-term prognosis.
“Amanda was probably the best basketball player I ever coached,” Tom Rettig said at the time. “I don’t know if she’ll ever get to play again, but that’s not the important thing.”
More than twenty years later, Vallo says Coach Rettig was literally there every step of the way.
“I remember he never made it about basketball or getting back on the court again,” she recalls warmly. “He would come in and hold my hand and tell me we were going to get through this. No rah rah speeches or yelling – just the caring was what mattered.”
Her parents, Steve Vallo of Tipp City and Sue Starr of Vandalia, also remember a tremendous outpouring of support.
“This included family and friends, of course, but also many, many folks from the community,” Starr notes. “It amazed me that even those who only knew Amanda through her volleyball and basketball success experienced a sense of loss and sent notes, cards, and offers of help. The expressions of concern and desire to help are something I’ll never forget. Never!”
Vallo would need to start at the beginning as she embarked on a path toward recovery. Soon after the accident, she told the Dayton Daily News, "the big thing is learning how to walk and do things like writing again so I can do schoolwork.”
And she did learn to walk and write again, with gusto.
Three months after the crash, Vallo stood up, then walked six feet. On Easter weekend, she slept overnight at home. By the beginning of her junior year, she attended classes full time. In the fall of 1992, she was crowned Homecoming Queen.
Finally, 28 months after that fateful ride home from school, Amanda Vallo crossed the stage on her own to receive her high school diploma and speak as co-Valedictorian of the Class of 1993.
“Graduation was my first ‘public walking’ event and one of the most heartwarming experiences,” she recalls. “When I went up to the podium to give my speech, everyone kept clapping, and clapping, and clapping. It really helped my recovery to have that warm encouragement and support.”
Was it better than hitting the winning basket and hearing the fans go wild?
“Almost,” Vallo says with a grin.
She also credits the dedication of her Tippecanoe High School teachers with keeping her on track both academically and emotionally.
“Mr. Rogers kind of spearheaded the effort, often showing up with a stack of assignments and a large dry erase board,” remembers Vallo. “Much like he might diagram a volleyball play, he’d balance chemistry equations.”
Vallo said her Spanish teacher, Señor Ferrell, would stop at the hospital on his way home and lift her spirits with his sense of humor.
“I always appreciated that,” she explains. “He’d say ‘Hola, Yolanda (my Spanish name)! Ready to get started?’ His infectious nature just made me want to try.”
According to Vallo, her high school coursework played a significant role in her decision to pursue a career in the sciences.
“Mr. Christian’s psychology class at Tipp definitely influenced me,” she says. “His level of teaching the subject made it seem legit.”
In 1998, Vallo crossed the stage again to collect her BA in psychology from Wright State University. As a WSU student, she volunteered at Miami Valley Hospital on the same rehab floor where she’d been a patient. Two years later, she added an MS in counseling psychology from The Ohio State University, then began post-master’s doctoral work at Dodd Hall, OSU’s Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Hospital.
“It was at Dodd that I first realized how important it was for me to get involved counseling families and those with new injuries. The more experience I had listening to people and what their needs were, the more I wanted to help them connect and build a sense of positive purpose.”
When her spinal cord injury forced Vallo to deemphasize her own involvement in sports for the first time, she became more aware of her connections with others.
“I hope this injury and the experience has made me a better person in that I try to listen to people and hear what they aren’t saying,” she explains. “It’s like the athlete in me is still always watching for those non-verbals. Just like you ‘read the defense,’ you need to have a certain pace and timing when doing things like asking questions or going into areas where people are hurting.”
After working as an assistant career developer at Functional Training Services in Columbus, Vallo relocated to Overland Park, Kansas, where she now works with The Whole Person agency as a mental health advocate. The non-profit organization provides services to people with physical and or mental disabilities.
“The goal is to help our consumers identify their most important goals and then to work with them to address any significant barriers or needs,” says Vallo. “I’m just waiting for my first young woman with the goal ‘to shoot hoops again’ to roll through the door. Not sure who’s going to be more excited. We may have to start with wind-sprints up and down the hall!”
Vallo is a certified personal trainer as well, and she demonstrates healthy exercise, discusses the value of being fit, and serves as a role model. Disciplined at the gym, she works out five to six days a week and has seen significant improvements in her own physical and mental health as a result.
So how does Vallo get around these days?
“I walk about 60% of the time and wheel the rest,” she says, “Places like Target, the mall, the airport, or a stadium involve a lot of walking. The chair lets me focus on getting where I need to be quickly and without falling.”
Although Vallo has checked off dozens of feats in recovery, she has more dreams.
“The athletic spirit never left me, so it has to go somewhere. I like to challenge myself with new adventures. I tried wheelchair sports like tennis just for fun, but wasn’t good at it. I don’t have good chair skills, which you need to be elite in that circuit. Instead, I’ve enjoyed trying out open water kayaking and my favorite – water skiing.”
Another goal? “I’d like to zip line someplace spectacular like New Zealand,” she adds with hope.
Freebird was the chosen song for Tippecanoe High School’s Class of 1993. What a fitting title for the young lady it deemed Most Likely to Be Remembered. She has absolutely found her wings.