BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) — Niki Rellon has always been a strong, independent person.
A native of Germany, Rellon’s risumi includes everything from professional boxing in Europe to ski instructing and patrol in Colorado. She has trained as a paramedic, triathlete, sky diver and a chef.
Rellon, who has dual citizenship with Germany and the U.S., has also backpacked the entire Pacific Crest Trail, from Mexico to Canada, by herself.
But on Nov. 1, 2013, her life changed forever. That’s when the now-40-year-old suffered a serious accident while rappelling down the side of Montezuma Canyon in Utah.
She recalled the day.
“It was a 100 feet rappel. It was a beautiful day. The sun was out. I was excited,” Rellon said.
“I clicked in (the harness) and I started going down super fast. I came 60 feet down and pulled the rope to come to a complete stop, to go slowly ... like a controlled weight. As soon as I tried to let go a little, I heard a funny clicking sound. I screamed. Then I noticed I was free falling — like a skydiver without a parachute.”
She plummeted 40 feet to the ground, severely fracturing her pelvis, sternum and ribs on impact. Her foot and lower left leg were also shattered.
“When I landed and became conscious, my friends had already rappelled down,” she said.
It didn’t take long for reality to sink in.
“I trained as an EMT in Germany, so when I heard this strange noise, I realized my pelvis was broken,” she said.
Rellon remained conscious, holding her friends’ hands for hours before a helicopter could reach her. The first craft was too big to land, but dropped off a nurse with morphine. It took several more hours before she was finally taken to the hospital and into surgery. Luckily, the hospital she was taken to in Utah had one of the few surgeons able to perform the intricate procedure she needed.
“It was one of the many amazing things that happened,” she said.
Rellon also had a consultation with another surgeon about her leg and foot. It was then that the doctor told her the devastating news — she would lose her leg.
“He did not show me the X-ray. He just said he needed consent to cut off my leg. I yelled at him ‘you’re not cutting off my leg.’ Eight hours earlier, I was a perfect, in-shape athlete and then, all of a sudden, someone wants to cut off your leg, you’re not really happy about it,” Rellon said with a laugh. “But with no X-rays I was like ‘you’re crazy.’ If you cut off my leg, you will have to send me to Oregon or Switzerland and just end my life.”
After trying to save the leg, it became obvious that it couldn’t be done.
Rellon did indeed undergo surgery to amputate her leg below the knee. Once all of the operations were completed, she was hit by a barrage of bad news from doctors.
“They were not very encouraging and that disappointed me. They would always tell me — you can’t do this or that,” she said.
But, true to form, she decided then and there she would prove them all wrong.
And that is exactly what she’s done. She bounced back from the pelvic surgery and was fitted with a leg prosthetic. Over the past 15 months, she’s made a full recovery and has gotten back to her athletic activities.
Rellon has learned how to ski with her prosthesis and even won an award for a skeleton race in Switzerland.
“I had never done that before, but they had room for me on the team and asked if I could do it, so I did,” she said.
Her next adventure is right around the corner. Rellon, who is currently in Brunswick visiting a friend, Douglas Simpson, is about to head off to hike the 2,300 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
Two sponsors — athletic apparel company Adidas and Boa, which has made a special prosthesis to make the process easier — have stepped up to help her.
“Adidas, which is a German company, gave me all this equipment and a camera to document the trip. I will fill up the memory cards and send them back to L.A.,” she said, gesturing to the massive amount of gear spread around her prepping area in Simpson’s home. “And Boa is making a supportive pin-locked prosthesis. It has air suction and will help with friction.”
Rellon expects the journey to take six months.
She still has quite a long way to go — and it’s not just the distance. She is depending on the kindness of donors to help fund her hike.
The money will go for food and hotels. Rellon says she must take time out of the hike, staying in hotels, in order to properly rest her leg.
“The skin is still really sensitive so you have to be careful. You have to be careful and go slowly. I think I could do about 20 miles a day, but I will have to work up to it,” she said.
“I only have about 40 percent of my strength back, but I will build it up again over the trip.”
Looking back at her journey, Rellon feels her survival is truly a miracle. She also contributes her healing to her athletic background and good genes.
“I was in perfect shape, physically, so I think that helped. I think it’s also genes. I think that when the doctors told me I couldn’t do it, it gave me motivation. And I’m German so I’m stubborn,” she said with a laugh.