Sitting in her favourite Mission coffee shop, sipping a hot tea, Kristianna May looks like any other customer.
She is cheerful and full of energy, and doesn’t seem out of the ordinary in any way. Passersby would have no idea that May is a female silver world paramotor champion – or that she was almost killed in an accident last year.
Many thought the accident would leave her unable to walk again, but May had other ideas.
The 32-year-old is originally from Toronto but started traveling the world when she was 17.
“My whole life I’ve wanted to fly. I’m one of those people who dreams big and just goes for it.”
She soon discovered the sport of paramotor, which she calls rare to North America.
“It’s kind of a backpack engine … You can blow yourself into the sky from anywhere. You can take off; you don’t need an airfield.”
May soon realized that not many women were participating in the sport and began competing. She became the female silver world champion in England in 2016.
After training in Spain, she returned to Canada.
“I heard about this flying area, which is really well known, in the Fraser Valley.”
She began flying over the Harrison Mills area.
“The view is beautiful. It’s just a nice mecca of eccentric people coming up from Seattle over from Vancouver … and it’s a perfect valley that’s nestled between the mountains.”
Within three weeks of her arrival in the Fraser Valley, life abruptly changed for May.
As she explains, some friends she was staying with wanted to see her fly, so they went out for a quick demonstration.
‘To this day, I don’t know what happened. Nobody knows what happened, because I have lost memory, recollection of the event itself. The last thing I remember was taking off, thinking this is great.”
She experienced some turbulence, which twisted her wing, and she couldn’t recover fast enough.
“The next thing I remember was waking up in the hospital, asking what happened.”
Her friends called emergency services and May was airlifted to Vancouver General Hospital.
The diagnosis wasn’t good.
The fall severed her spine from her pelvis, rendering her legs unusable, broke her right femur, fractured her pelvis and ribs, and bruised her lungs.
Doctors told her they were not sure she would ever walk again.
She spent the next month and a half in hospital.
“Some of the darkest days of my life were then because I felt I had reached the pinnacle of my career … I just felt like my path had to end.”
She was discharged in a wheelchair with titanium rods in her leg/hip, and a semi-permanent fixation screwed in her back and pelvis.
“It’s disgusting. It sticks out and I can feel the screws. Every time I lie on my back I can feel it.”
Once doctors are confident her spine is 100 per cent healed, they will take the rods out.
May needed a place to live that was close to VGH so she could continue to get regular X-rays and other treatments, and she chose Mission.
“Luckily, a friend of mine, again one of those amazing people from the community here, said she’d look around for an apartment for me.”
May spent the next three months in Mission in a lot of pain but determined to start walking again. She slowly graduated from her wheelchair to a walker and, finally, in November, to crutches.
While her progress was impressive, she was still a little melancholy as the 2017 flying championships were set to take place that month in Egypt. She was registered to compete, but would not be able to attend.
However, May was about to get some good news that would lead to a more positive path forward.
Organizers of the championships had heard from other pilots about May’s accident. Calling her an inspiration, they flew her to Egypt to take part in the championships, albeit as a spectator.
“I was so thrilled. They flew me there in a wheelchair and I stood there at the base of the pyramids watching all of my friends fly.”
During her 10-day stay, she got up one morning and, still sleepy, forgot to reach for her walker.
“I just got out of bed and realized as I was going to the bathroom – wow! – I’m walking.”
She had left Mission in a wheelchair, and returned walking. May had no plans to let her progress slow down.
“I signed up for classes at the rec centre. The same people who remembered me being lowered into the pool to help move my legs and being carried over between the pools were now seeing me in yoga class.”
She said people now come up to her at the Mission Recreation Centre and call her “the miracle.”
She went from not walking to leading the yoga class within seven weeks.
Although she’s not jogging yet, May said she is thrilled to be able to be active.
“I have nerve damage in my right side which I can’t feel all the time, but if that’s the worst of my problems, I’m not complaining.”
She can’t explain exactly how she has made such a fast recovery, but May does think that mental strength has as much to do with it as physical.
“I think it was my positive attitude. I think it was my mentality and belief system. I wanted to walk every day when I came out of the hospital… I was determined.”
With her competitive paramotor days behind her, May is planning to move on with her life, here in Mission.
“I love this community, I have a really good feeling here.”
Recently she has been working for a Toronto company, doing social media and marketing. Now she wants to start working in the community.
She also want to give something back.
May would love the opportunity to speak to local classes to share her story and hopefully motivate others to succeed.
“I want to inspire people. I want someone to look at me and say, ‘Because of you, I didn’t give up.’ ”
May can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.