From laughing with her friends one minute, to ending up in a heart-breaking car accident the next, 16-year-old swimmer Ryan McLean never would’ve expected her high school winter formal night to end in the hospital.
Within an instant, this teenage girl’s “snowglobe of a life” was shaken around, leaving her paralyzed and in need of building herself back up from scratch.
However, while some people might fall down the rabbit hole of depression once they hear that they’ll never be able to walk again, Ryan McLean just kept on swimming and took on life with a whole new perspective and an ambitious approach.
Let’s dive into the inspiring story of how this professional swimmer ended up back in the pool after being permanently paralyzed.
Cherry Creek High School
Ryan McLean was born and raised in the beautiful, mountainous state of Colorado in August of 1980. She grew up in the Denver metro area, where she attended one of the top schools in the state, Cherry Creek High School—or as the locals call it, Creek.
Creek wasn’t just known for its impressive educational program and extra-curriculars, though. The traditions that the students have passed down, year after year, have carried on for generations—especially when it comes to special school-sanctioned dances.
And come her junior year, Ryan and her friends couldn’t wait for their big night of fun they had been planning for weeks!
Image via Ryan McLean Harbuck
A Night On the Town
Each school has its own traditions and quirks when it comes to showing your school spirit or participating in school-sanctioned events. And when it comes to the dance customs at Creek, it’s all about having a fun night on the town.
It’s usually filled with traditions of getting ready together at your friend’s place, posing for pictures at someone’s house for your parents, taking a ride together to a restaurant as a group (sometimes via limo or party bus), making your way over to the dance to dance the night away, and then participating in a fun activity of your friend group’s choosing.
But what happened the night of Ryan’s dance was something nobody could even imagine planning for.
Illustration. Photo by Andrew Seaman / Unsplash
We Never Made It There
Ryan and her friends had planned the perfect night together. There was good company, good food, and good music. What could go wrong?
After spending some time dancing their hearts out on the dance floor, the group gathered themselves and got ready for their next venture of the night. Little did they know that everything was about to change.
“After leaving a school-sanctioned dance, I piled into a car with my friends and headed off to the bowling alley. We never made it there,” Ryan shared with Denver Woman.
Image by Michael Jin / Unsplash
Before the Bowling Alley
On the way to the bowling alley, Ryan and her friends were laughing their hearts off and dancing to pump themselves up for a few rounds of some good ‘ol bowling.
However, before anyone could even comprehend what happened next, they endured a tragic and heart-breaking accident.
“The driver of the car lost control on the highway. The car flipped through the air across the median and collided with oncoming traffic and I was projected out of the car through the side window. I landed an estimated 150 feet from the car,” Ryan shared in 2008.
Illustration. Photo by Matt Chesin / Unsplash
Shaking the Snow Globe
Unfortunately, Ryan didn’t walk away from the accident without a scratch. In fact, it was far from it.
“As if someone picked up the snow globe of my life and violently shook it up, everything changed in a matter of seconds. I broke my spinal cord, collapsed my lungs, endured massive road-rash on my back, and broke nearly every bone in my legs,” Ryan explained in 2008.
She was quickly rushed to the hospital to tend to her extensive injuries, but it was what happened while she was in recovery that truly changed her life.
Image by Jonnica Hill / Unsplash
Ryan’s Recovery Plan
Once she was rushed to the hospital, Ryan underwent surgery for more than 20 hours straight, where she was then transferred to the ICU for the next few weeks.
After spending a month vigorously recovering in the ICU, Ryan was transferred again to a different unit for the next three weeks, until she finally made her way to rehabilitation for three months.
However, at the end of the intense few months she spent recovering, she was still paralyzed from the rib-cage down, and was told by her doctors that she would be wheel-chair bound for life.
And while there’s no doubt that the whole process was an emotional ride, it showed Ryan a different side of herself.
Swimming is Like Breathing
Before the accident, Ryan was actually a very athletic young woman and spent much of her time doing all kinds of different types of sports.
Ever since Ryan was 8 years old, swimming was a big part of her life. “It was something like breathing—you just do it, without much thought or effort,” Ryan enthusiastically revealed in a recent interview.
But unfortunately, the older she got, the more she began to suffer with something quite common amongst teenagers—a lack of self-confidence. “I was actually pretty good, but I didn’t think so … By the time I was a teenager, I was pretty self-deprecating about my swimming and I started getting slower,” Ryan recalled.
She might not have taken the competitive part as seriously during this time, but she still continued to freely swim like a fish in the pool whenever she could.
“From That Night on My World Became a Challenge”
Ryan couldn’t commit to swimming full time due to her lack of confidence but recovery and the whole process opened her eyes to how resilient and ambitious she truly is deep inside.
“I no longer looked toward the future, because I could no longer see what would be foretold,” Ryan revealed to Denver Woman. “From that night on, my world became a challenge … not in the sense of feeling burdened or defeated, quite the opposite in fact. This was a feeling of yearning for more. An instant transformation of drive and strength caused me to lift myself up into a wheelchair and I began to push.”
But that was just the beginning of Ryan’s journey.
Getting Back to a Regular Routine
Can you imagine how the teenage girl must’ve felt during those five-six months in recovery? Talk about intense!
But through it all, instead of feeling so down and low about the cards that she was now dealt, she decided to be optimistic and was determined that life just keeps on rolling.
Learning to use a wheel-chair was just the start of getting back to a regular life and routine—which was something that Ryan aimed for all through recovery.
But what did being wheel-chair bound mean for the other aspects of her life outside of getting around from one place to the next?
Like a Fish in the Water
As we’ve mentioned before, athletics were always open and present in Ryan’s life. Ever since she was eight years old, she had been swimming freely like a fish in the water, and loved every second of it.
When you’re so young, though, it’s hard to tell just how much potential you truly have for your passions. And for Ryan, pursuing swimming professionally didn’t seem like something she could achieve.
That is, until her enlightening experience and epiphanies that came after the accident.
Reigniting the Passion
Part of getting back to her normal life meant that she needed to get back into the pool. And so, that’s exactly what she did as soon as she was able to.
“I was always better [at swimming] than I thought, and really regret holding myself back when I was able-bodied—which I think is how I reignited a passion for it after my accident,” she revealed in a recent interview in the summer of 2020.
And even though she jumped right into the pool a few months after being released from the hospital, it wouldn’t be until a few years later that Ryan would truly find her passion for swimming again.
In fact, her first time getting back into the pool was quite an obstacle, both physically and emotionally.
Back to the Pool
Out of everything she’s been through in her life, Ryan recently shared that getting back into the pool post-accident was one of the hardest things she’s ever done.
“My legs would drag behind me in the water, and it was truly so difficult physically … My body would shake in the water because it had a hard time controlling my body temperature. To top it all off, I was incredibly embarrassed— by needing help getting in and out, by being so slow, and by my body in and of itself,” Ryan further revealed.
Swimming turned out to be a difficult challenge, but she didn’t want to give this up. So instead of focusing on becoming a trained swimmer herself, she found a different way to stay involved in the aquatic world.
“My Regret Helps Me”
Ever since she got back in the pool just mere months after her accident in 1997, Ryan started to coach for a summer swim club, and loved every second of it! She enjoyed inspiring the youth, coaching her team of swimmers, and passing on her own personal knowledge of swimming onto them so that they could strive in ways that she now knew she could.
When asked about what kept her in the pool all these years, she said, “I think that my regret also helps me to be a better coach, because I can help guide kiddos through their own swim careers and decisions better.”
Kids Didn’t Know How to Talk to Me
Along with getting back into the pool, Ryan also returned to high school, which proved to be another obstacle she didn’t see coming.
“I would never say that I was mistreated—however, I was definitely treated differently … I lost a lot of friends afterwards simply because kids didn’t know how to talk to me, approach me, or what to say,” Ryan revealed.
Now that she had undergone such a dramatic lifestyle change, being a shy kid didn’t help when it came to socializing. However, she discovered a way to wake up her inner-extrovert.
“It took only a couple years for me to realize that it was totally up to me to change the way that people viewed me—and it was up to me to make people okay with me.”
Image via Ryan McLean Harbuck
Whether you’re in high school or working a 9-to-5 office job, socializing is a big part of life, and proved to be a new challenge for Ryan to tackle. But that wasn’t the only thing she had her mind set on.
The tenacious and determined teenager worked hard to make sure that she would graduate high school on time with her senior class, and ended up proudly continuing on to college.
“First, I pushed to finish high school on time. I pushed to be considered a normal college student who didn’t need any special help. I pushed to independently live on my own. I pushed my way through the workforce. I pushed to swim again. I pushed to see the limitless potential that was inside of me all along,” she proudly wrote on her blog.
A Very Funny Life
Even though Ryan pushed herself to be as independent as can be, she learned to appreciate others who want to help.
“Being in a wheelchair is a very funny life. If someone opens a door for you, it makes that person feel good. I was stubborn at first and didn’t want to be that person [needing help], but people want to help each other. A lot of times, they just want to be proud of me,” Ryan light-heartedly revealed to Denver Woman.
How Did She Do It?
It’s safe to say that the resilient and remarkable motivation this teenage girl had is absolutely awe-inspiring. And after the accident, she pushed herself in every aspect, including as a swimmer. How exactly did she relearn how to swim, though?
“I began playing around with my strokes and altering them slightly to make them more efficient for my body (i.e., Pushing the water passed my hips to try to force my legs straighter, etc.),” Ryan revealed.
Redefining herself as a swimmer was like taking in a whole new breath of fresh air.
“Now, being in a wheelchair, it was literally the only active thing I could do without the use of my chair or any assistive devices. It was actually very freeing,” she further explained.
College is So Much More Than Earning a Degree
Ryan was really enjoying coaching, but for the time being, it was just a summer gig.
As she went off to college, it was time for her to decide what she wanted to major in. But one thing that they don’t tell us about college is that it’s so much more than just studying and earning a degree. It’s a time in your life where you really come to learn who you are, and shapes you to become your future adult self.
“College taught me to choose a life that I enjoyed, not always something that came easily to me,” Ryan confessed in her blog.
Picking a Major
When it came to deciding what major she wanted to pursue in college, Ryan had a lot of influence and inspiration from everything she picked up on during her many months in the hospital.
“Science had never been a strength of mine, but all of the newfound knowledge I had burst into my brain and sang songs of innovation, analysis, and creativity that I had never known before. I still feel this same enthusiasm today and live to share it with those who will listen,” Ryan eagerly wrote on her blog.
But studying science was just part of what she saw for herself career-wise.
A New Passion to Pursue
Similar to discovering her desire to study science, it seemed like the repercussions of her accident seemed to set her on a path to find another passion. Because of that, during her college days, Ryan discovered something else that brought passion and fulfillment into her life—coaching.
And yet even that occurred almost accidently. “I became a coach only when my own swim team deemed me unable to participate as a swimmer anymore. My first step was to prove them wrong and remain the swimmer I had always been … This truly is where I began to form academic philosophies and gain insight into children’s lives,” Ryan further explained in her blog.
Coming Full Circle
As soon as Ryan had proudly graduated with her Bachelor’s, she landed a job as a swim coach, along with coaching at the summer club that she had been working at since 1997. But the job wasn’t just for any old swim team.
“After finishing my undergraduate degree, I relocated back to my hometown and began coaching swimming for the very high school from which I graduated,” she excitedly shared. Can you believe it? Talk about coming full circle!
One thing led to another, and a new career opportunity was presented at the table.
A New Career Path
Kathy Smith, Cherry Creek High School’s principal at the time, had noticed that Ryan had a real knack with the swimmers. So much so, that she even encouraged and offered Ryan the opportunity to take things to the next level career-wise, and become a teacher.
“I truly believe that moment changed my life … I felt elated about being able to lend my talents to the very community that supported me when I needed them most,” Ryan excitedly recalled in 2008.
Without any hesitation, Ryan applied for an administrative job at the school’s science department and eventually landed a job as a teacher in the department. How amazing!
Opening Doors for Others
Ryan confessed to Denver Woman, “The car accident was a strange twist of fate that took me from a beautifully naïve teenage athlete to something more unknown and vague … [However], early on, I realized it was my job to help people become comfortable. If I can show people it is OK to ask questions, it opens the door for them.”
And with that mentality, she set off on her fulfilling career path as a Biology teacher, and quickly became one of the most admired and cherished teachers in the school.
But soon, another opportunity will present itself—one that will truly change her life once again.
Rolling Down the Halls She Once Walked
During the mid-2000s, Ryan started to explore options about some new and alternative medical treatment for her condition. It turns out that in India they were doing stem-cell research, and she was eager to learn more and see if it was the right choice and treatment for her.
After getting approved, she scheduled out a trip with three amazingly supportive friends to travel all the way to India in 2008.
The medical procedure was split up into two different treatments, six months apart. And after her very first treatment, the doctors already started to see miraculous results!
How the Treatment Works
So how exactly did the procedure work? Ryan explained that the cells weren’t necessarily for her spinal cord, it was whatever part of her body needed the help.
Basically, she was injected with stem cells, and stem cells would send themselves to different parts of her body that were “crying for help”.
Since the procedure was so experimental, though, the doctors did a trial and error of what worked and what didn’t. But Ryan was blown away by what she see happen within just a few months.
The First Signs of Healing
During her first treatment, she started to see the scars from the procedure, however, come her second treatment those scars started to heal up and the wrinkles started to shrink.
“I began to see the scars on my legs start to peel—that’s what I noticed first. I tried to make excuses and such, but I really do think that was part of the stem cells working,” Ryan confessed during her interview.
Over the next couple of months, though, she started to gain a little bit of sensation in her legs and knees, which ultimately helped her a bit more with coordination and balance. How amazing!
“I Started to Feel Stretch All The Way to My Toes”
Ryan’s goal for her trip to India wasn’t about regaining the ability to walk again. She truly just wanted to see if there was a way that she could extend her “longevity”.
She didn’t feel much change during her first treatment, but after the second round of treatment, she started to feel even more sensations in her legs.
“[Having] a better sense of my legs … caused me to take better care of my lower half. (Things like not putting a hot pan on my legs to stir it, etc.—I just became much more connected). Additionally, I started to feel stretch all the way to my toes,” Ryan eagerly shared on her blog. How remarkable!
A Life-Changing Experience Beyond the Treatment
If there’s anything that we’ve learned about Ryan, it’s that going through medical treatments—whether they’re voluntary or not—always opens up a new light in her life, in a way she never expected.
“My time and experience in India were unprecedented. It was so life-changing, and even with the stem cell stuff aside. India was just such an amazing place that fueled my soul so well … I definitely gained some function and feeling back from the treatments, but nothing that was going to take me out of using a wheelchair. Mostly the treatments helped me to connect to my lower half, and actually learn how to take care of it. It sounds silly, but so important,” Ryan emotionally recalled earlier this year.
Bed Rest for 8 Months
In 2000, Ryan challenged herself with a brand-new goal. “I trained and swam in the Paralympic Trials in 2000. I didn’t make the team and stopped focusing on it,” Ryan further shared in her interview.
And while she was happy to have swimming in her life as a coach, deep down, she longed to try and achieve that goal again.
“In 2010, I had a really bad health scare which left me on bed rest for over 8 months. Throughout that time, I dreamed of swimming every night. When I was well enough to, I got back in and started training [for the Paralympics]. I made a promise to myself to put everything I had into it this time and see where it led me. I was not about to regret anything,” Ryan shared with us.
Prepping for 2012
It’s hard to believe that someone can have so much drive and ambition when they’ve experienced all sorts of traumatic and intense medical issues in their life. But Ryan wasn’t the type of person to let that crush her spirit. In fact, she’s learned that everything happens for a reason, and that reason has always put her on the right path.
So after training for about two years, the determined and driven go-getter set out to try-out for the 2012 Paralympics. Little did she know that the universe had something much bigger planned.
A Different Kind of Reward
Ryan eagerly tried-out for her second round of Paralympic trials and impressively set a new American record at that time! Unfortunately, though, that wasn’t enough to get her to the team.
But don’t worry, the Paralympic Gods found another way to reward her. “[I] felt really good about [the trials]. I just knew that I was supposed to be there, and even felt a strange feeling that my life was about to change. Which it did. Although, not in the way that I may have felt it would … The night of my last event, I met my future husband next to the water fountain. The rest is (quick!) history!!” Ryan excitedly expressed in her interview.
Rounding Out the Little Family
“I since tried to make the Paralympic swim team, met my husband there, and were married in 3 months. I definitely don’t recommend my path, but it was right at the time and it still is. We had our first kiddo a little less than a year after getting married. We co-own and coach a swim team together, and I left teaching right after my first (Van) was born. We had Orren about a year and a half ago, and he rounds out our little family so well,” Ryan happily shared in her interview.
Right Place, Right Time, and Similar Goals
When it comes to true love, it’s all about right place, right time, and of course, having the same goals in life.
Ryan and her husband, Andrew Harbuck, shared a deep love and passion for one another, and for swimming. After getting married in 2010, the two lovebirds started coaching for the same swim club, Swim Dogs. And in 2013, the happily-ever-after-couple took ownership of the club!
Together they continue to raise their children together in Denver, as well as, coaching for Swim Dogs.
Not just that, but a couple of Ryan’s students from Cherry Creek High School are now coaches there, too!
Mind Over Matter
Almost two decades later, Ryan summarized the importance and significance of mind of matter, and how far being patient and adapting can really get.
“I think that over everything, I have tried my best to lead a relatively monotoned and regular life—yet, over and over again, the universe has laid different plans for me. I learned at a pretty young age (my accident happened when I was 16) to be adaptable. I learned things the hard way, mostly, due to the desire for independence and good ol’ stubbornness. I feel like the things that have happened to me—good and bad— have always been for a reason. I think that if I didn’t have that outlook, things could have gotten pretty dark for me after my accident.”