Standing at the summit of a hike in California, Sarah Foley gazed into the valleys below. She turned to her boyfriend and said, “My life is perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing.” Newly in love, with a dream job she had worked hard for and amazing family and friends, she was literally and figuratively on top of the world. “I have pictures of that day – the last pictures of me standing,” she told me.
Later that day, the couple met up with friends to ride ATVs through the backroads. Though Foley was new to motorcycles and a bit shaky, things started out well. “It was an easy, fun drive,” she said. “They put me on the big one because I’m not really comfortable on those things.” Then, the accident happened: Trying to avoid a collision, Foley panicked and veered off the trail. She ended up in a ditch. “It’s just like they say – everything slowed down. I heard every little break. It’s funny the first things that go through your mind.”
“Don’t move me. Call Life Flight,” she told her friends. “How’s my face?” Foley has a beautiful face: clear blue eyes, fine features, a wide, pretty smile. But her face looked fine; remarkably, she appeared completely unscathed: “There was not even a stitch of blood – it was so weird,” she said. She had no way of knowing that she had a spinal cord injury.
From that ditch in California where Foley waited for hours to be helicoptered out, she had no way of knowing anything that her future held. She didn’t yet know about the hours of surgery and weeks of rehabilitation ahead of her. She didn’t know about the wheelchair she would at first loathe, then begin to accept and even love. She didn’t know that she would eventually marry the boyfriend she hiked with that day, or that they would move to Maui and have a son. She certainly couldn’t have predicted that she would become Ms. Wheelchair Hawaii and compete for a national title. All she knew in that moment was that she was seriously injured.
Fast forward six years. Fresh from an appointment at Salon 253, Foley ordered a triple-shot cappuccino and settled in to talk with me at Wailuku Coffee Co. I had met Foley a few times before; once at a Kelea Foundation event at Ho‘okipa, where in her sash and tiara, she led a group of teenagers through a self-empowerment activity. I had also seen her at the Fourth of July parade in Makawao, where she sat waving to the crowds on her cute convertible, her trusty wheelchair in the backseat, a vision through the mist. At 36, Foley has perky blonde hair and the luminescent, straightforward smile of a beauty queen.
Which, of course, is what she is. This past August, Foley went to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she competed amongst women from all over the country, all in wheelchairs. Sitting in her ball gown, vying for the title of Ms. Wheelchair America, Foley was in her element, radiating health and goodwill.
But it wasn’t always this way. Throughout our conversation, as we discussed the competition and the journey that led her down this path, Foley spoke eloquently of the pain and grief of losing her ability to walk while rediscovering her dignity and positive spirit. Instead of speaking in pageant platitudes, Foley was refreshingly open and honest when discussing her injury, what life is like for her now, the many lessons she’s learned, and how she is using those lessons to inspire others.
Following her injury, after weeks in rehab where they taught her how to take care of her needs and move around in a wheelchair, Foley went back to work as quickly as possible. She was the director of a spa and took pride in her position. “Coming from this accident where I needed so much help, then going back to this position where they needed me, I was the boss; I was really proud of that.” Despite the outward appearance of having everything together, Foley didn’t have an outlet for the suffering she was internally enduring. After long days at work, she would get into her car and cry the whole way home.
Part of her suffering was rooted in denial. “I never thought it would get to five years and I wouldn’t be walking; the thought never crossed my mind,” Foley told me. “I always had this knowledge, even up on the mountain: It’s all going to be okay.”
But Foley didn’t realize what “okay” might eventually look like. At first, “I was really gung-ho; I really thought I was going to walk again. I was itching to get back to normalcy. I just wanted to go back to this perfect life I had. Looking back, it was so clear how in denial I was,” said Sarah. “I used to do photoshoots sitting on things; I was never in my chair, even at my wedding. Now, I want my chair in every single photo. I put flowers on it. Now I see it as my partner.”
Moving to Maui and being steeped in Hawai‘i’s culture is one of the things that helped Foley make this shift. Living in the islands has helped Foley see herself more holistically. Before she moved here, she said she told herself, “If I’m going to go, I’m going to heal.” Her idea was that it would be physical: Her body would respond to the climate and people of Hawai‘i and get her walking again. “What I didn’t realize is how much emotional healing had to happen.”
“Now I’m on this wild ride, and I think back: What would be happening right now, if the accident never happened? I wouldn’t be a writer or a speaker. I always saw myself on a stage somewhere, but I had nothing to talk about. No struggle. I love a crowd; I love to talk to people and uplift them. Without the accident, all of these things wouldn’t have happened.” She knows without the long and mysterious chain of events that leads from one thing to another, she also wouldn’t have her three-year-old son if her injury had never happened. “He is so compassionate and strong; it’s amazing, the person that he is going to be because of this,” she said.
While she has undergone healing and is happy with her life, Foley speaks authentically about her injury and losing her ability to walk. “It’s still a tragedy; let’s not even sugar coat it. Every day I’m faced with something that’s like, that would be so much easier if I could walk.”
Though Foley is optimistic, she acknowledges that there is a fair amount of hopelessness within the disabled community, and she understands it. “This element of needing help is the thing I struggle with every day,” she said. She tells me a story of something that happened earlier that week. “This is embarrassing. I had fallen from my wheelchair and couldn’t get into my car,” she said. No one was around, and she didn’t want to call for help. “I felt so…l don’t even know what the word is; I hate seeing myself in such a needy place. I just sat there for ten minutes,” she said, until a neighbor came out and saw she needed help. “To go from ‘I am fully capable of handling my life’ to ‘I need help;’ it’s hard.”
The Ms. Wheelchair competition is one of the things that has helped Foley find self-determination and purpose. It’s also aligned with Foley’s personality. “I’ve seriously always wanted to be Miss America; I never missed a pageant on TV. I always had it in the back of my mind that one day I might do it,” she said. Her involvement began last January when Foley got a call. The organizers of the Ms. Wheelchair America competition had been following her online. They saw that she stood for something positive and was inspiring others, and they asked her to be Ms. Wheelchair Hawaii. “At first I would tell my friends and laugh… And then finally I was like, this is never going to come back around again.”
So she went for it. The Ms. Wheelchair America competition spanned a full week and included women from all walks of life and with all kinds of stories. The competition included themed nights: For the “Under the Sea” night, Foley wore a mermaid costume, complete with full tail. During ‘50s night, she went as Marilyn Monroe. There was ballroom dancing, field trips, and workshops.
After a week of competition, Foley ended up in the top five on crowning night. It got down to her and Ms. Louisiana. “The little girl in me was like, I’ve waited my entire life for this moment! This is everything! And then it was just like my accident: everything happened in slow motion, and everything got quiet, and I got this flash of, ‘Nope, you’re not going to win this, it’s not for you.’ And that’s okay. I knew I wasn’t going to win, and I knew I shouldn’t win.”
She entered the competition knowing that she hoped that the winner would be the woman who would do the most for the wheelchair community with her platform, and to Foley, Ms. Louisiana fit that bill. Foley ended up bringing home first-runner up, which she is really happy about.
On her way out of the event, someone pulled her aside and said, “Dream big,” and Foley fully intends to do just that. Her experience as Ms. Wheelchair Hawaii has generated momentum, and Foley has a lot of ideas and energy for where she wants to go next. Along with her trainer, she’s developing a fitness app for people in wheelchairs, since she’s found a lot of empowerment through fitness. As the state representative of the competition, it’s up to her to start a Ms. Wheelchair Hawaii competition here in the islands. She’s envisioning a summit, rather than a competition, for the statewide event.
“We’re all wanting inclusion and accessibility,” said Foley. She’s hoping to bring women in wheelchairs together to have workshops and empowerment activities on public speaking, networking, and disability issues. “Maybe we change the game a little bit,” she said. Beyond that, she’s regularly writing her blog and sharing it on her Instagram. She’s also collaborating to write a Disney story about a princess in a wheelchair.
Though outwardly Foley shines with health, energy, and enthusiasm, Foley’s grace and acceptance of her condition was not a straightforward or simple path. During the competition, Foley shared her message, which resonates with everyone. “Disability or not; the message is the same,” Foley said. “Sit tall, stand tall, stand up for yourself, and elevate yourself with your experiences. Words are everything; they create our reality.” Even though not everyone has or will experience an accident of such magnitude, everyone will encounter life going awry.
“Struggles are going to happen regardless; we can always open ourselves up to changing our perspective,” said Foley. “Disability is the biggest minority group; and it’s something anyone can join at anytime. No one is safe.”
I asked her what else she wished other people knew about disability and being in a wheelchair. “In terms of educating people, that it’s totally okay to recognize when something sucks,” she said. When Foley was first injured, she thought she needed to put a happy face on for everyone else, which left her unable to acknowledge the truth that becoming paralyzed was really hard. “Disability or not, we all have something we want to change. Accidents, disease, mistakes – it’s okay to sit back and say, this sucks. And we can’t change it.”
Though Foley’s nuanced worldview encompasses the unfair nature of life, she is not defeatist. “I think the optimism in my core is who I am; I think that has served me in a lot of ways,” Foley said. “We’re on the brink of a lot of inclusion, including in Hollywood, and we’re seeing a lot in science, technology, and medicine. There’s a huge shift right now.” We talked about how in many ways, now is the best time in human history to be different.
Much of Foley’s mission is addressing this complexity and showing people that while they might need help, they can be empowered. She regularly posts pictures of herself lifting weights at the gym, and writes and speaks about the power of a polished appearance. She initially struggled with the idea of being beautiful in a wheelchair.
“Who are you to try to look sexy in a wheelchair?” she asked herself early on. Through her journey, she’s come to embrace her inner beauty queen and understand that looking good is valid and even transformative, especially for those who are in wheelchairs. Foley even developed a project based on this idea, The Vertical Beauty Project, which gives women with disabilities a makeover and treats them to a photoshoot. “A shift happens during the shoot, and they feel beautiful,” said Foley.
What else does the future hold for Foley? “My ultimate dream is to be doing motivational speaking to any and every group.” She hope to share her lessons: “Taking care of yourself, changing your perception, facing your circumstances head on, grieving; all of those are universal lessons. I’d also love to do retreats with women for disabilities. It would be a like a makeover from the inside out. To show them that they can do a lot, and show them that they are beautiful people too, and that is totally valid too. I really acknowledge the fact that life without struggle has no strength.”
And Foley does have strength, and wisdom, the kind that can result from suffering and healing. She embodies grace yet doesn’t deny the despair that comes with life, and claims her beauty while explaining her tragedy. Those things can exist at the same time; maybe they have to. “We can plan our whole lives out, and most likely they are not going to go to plan,” said Foley. It’s what we do next that matters, and Foley has big plans.
Cover design by Darris Hurst
Photo 1 courtesy Sarah Foley
Photo 2 courtesy Melissa Dieble
Photo 3 by Juniper Ruby for Mermaids on Maui