Mandy Willmore's fitted wheelchair didn't have her seated to the side Thursday at a recent dinner with teammates in Rapid City.
There was no need to reconfigure a bunch of restaurant chairs or find a special place for the sophomore to fit in. She was able to scoot right up to the head of the gathering and slide in, with the table at a near-perfect height.
Quickly the conversation turned to class, to recent stories, to the everyday gab college students often share. Watching Willmore from afar, you'd get the impression that everything is, for want of a better word, normal.
For the Rock Springs, Wyo., native, plenty of challenges remain to remind her that total normality is going to be difficult to grasp. But, given the circumstances, Willmore is about as adjusted as she can possibly be.
It's been a roller coaster of pain, emotion and recovery since Dec. 16, when Willmore's first surfing lesson in Hawaii - the team was slowly filtering into Honolulu for the Hoop N Surf tournament - resulted in her development of surfer's myelopathy, a spinal cord injury that often afflicts first-time surfers who have traveled long distances within the preceding 24 to 48 hours.
Nearly three months later, Willmore still suffers from nearly total paralysis from the waist down. Almost every day, however, she says she gets a little more sensation back.
There are the uncontrollable variables, such as the time of day or how her body feels, that can increase or dampen those precious bursts of feeling. She can often feel herself pinching her calf, and she'll usually be able to tell if you touch her foot. On a good day, she'll be able to identify where.
There are also the tinglings that build up in her foot until they shoot up her leg before eventually fading out. Willmore calls the process an "echo effect."
"I've had those feelings from the beginning," she said. "They're more often now than they used to be."
It used to be that the pain and the initial shock from the condition controlled her early thoughts. She was in bed for a week in Hawaii until she was transported to Craig Hospital in Denver shortly before Christmas.
Once at the rehabilitation hospital, she said she quickly realized that the people who had been there the longest had often possessed a defeatist attitude. Not that she blames others for their own dejection, but she was determined never to make self-pity an option.
"From the moment I found out I was paralyzed I really didn't let it affect me. It was almost, ‘OK, now I'm going to have to adjust,'" she said. "It wasn't like I was going to sit and lay in bed all day, which I did have to do for a while."
Willmore got to enjoy Christmas with her family and best friend Stephanie Skinner, also a sophomore guard for Mines. She was too tired to open many gifts on her own, but her biggest present was getting rid of the "clunker."
That's the understood nickname for the unfitted wheelchair patients use until their custom-fitted chair arrives. The big hunk of metal was tall and cumbersome, and Willmore said she could only sit in it for an hour before feeling uncomfortable.
When her new "Cadillac," as her doctor called it, arrived, she found she could sit in the fitted chair for about five hours.
She quickly began therapy the Monday after Christmas and was working for three hours a day, five days a week. The following week, she was working for five hours a day. In the final weeks before leaving Craig, Colo., on Feb. 4, she was in therapy for essentially a full workday.
Activities and topics ranged from occupational therapy - functional tasks such as cooking in a kitchen and getting dressed - to fitness training and weightlifting, to mat classes that helped develop transfer and balance, to game day.
Even the fun parts involved a lot of work.
"Oh, it'd be the hardest game ever so that you were doing endurance work the whole time," Willmore said. "The weekend would come, and I'd get to Sunday and finally wouldn't be sore. But come Monday, I'd be sore all over again."
One of her favorite games was "go ball," which Willmore describes as a cross between ultimate Frisbee and football. The mass of wheelchairs charging after a ball created a bunch of collisions, a spate of fumes and a nervous relative or two.
"It'd smell like burnt rubber in the gym because the aluminum on the sides of the chairs would be rubbing together," she said. "My grandma walked in one time and was really scared for me. She thought we were doing something super dangerous."
More dangerous might be charging up to a curb and popping a wheelie, but that skill is both fun and useful. Willmore, though, would prefer to have someone spot her to pull her up the curb. Thankfully, Skinner has been there through much of Willmore's ordeal.
Skinner was there during Willmore's surfing lesson. She'd been on the opposite side of the basketball court through middle and high school in Green River, Wyo., but had grown close with Willmore before coming to Mines.
She acts as a helper, cheerleader and support system rolled into one. Although she's looking to resume schoolwork over the summer and fall in Colorado, she left Rapid City to be there for her friend.
Even if it's occasionally to bicker.
"Whether I keep her spirits up or maybe push Mandy to keep trying things one day to keep those sensations growing, it's a favor to repay to her," she said. "That's my purpose, to keep her happy, because if she doesn't have a close friend or support system, then what does she have?"
She's also there because she saw firsthand how debilitating Willmore's condition became in mere minutes.
"I don't mean any offense, but sometimes Mandy would prick her thumb and it was a big deal," she said, smiling. "So when she said her back hurt coming out of the water, I said, ‘We're athletes, it hurts, but we don't talk about it. Rub some dirt on it and let's go.'
"Then we started walking; she started to hurt. She fell down. It was harder to walk and it was probably one of the scariest moments of my life. I didn't know what to do. And there I was being a jerk, because who could think something like that could ever happen from surfing? From then on, I apologize once a week, whether she wants to hear it or not. I'll be by her side."
Willmore said there aren't words to describe her gratitude for her friend.
"My family's helped me a lot through this. But it's like going back home where, you know, you're there for a week but then you start to go nuts. Steph's there to step in. It's tremendous. I can't be more thankful - she's really helped more than I can say."
Willmore moved to her aunt's home in Rock Springs after leaving the hospital and is in the process of moving to Thornton, Colo., a northern suburb of Denver. She's searching for a school in which to enroll in the fall and is thinking about Regis University. She said there will be hand controls put into a car over the next couple of weeks, and then she'll have the opportunity to drive.
For now, Mines coach Barb Felderman said Willmore's been taught to slide up on a board to get into vehicles. But she's often wanting to pull herself in, her coach says.
"That's just how she is. She's a hard worker. ... She was so excited the first time we were there, real bubbly. This time," she said, referring to Thursday, "she's focused. She wants to get to a rehab hospital. She's not giving up. She's very independent."
Willmore said she wishes she could take the mental focus she's acquired in her rehab and transplant it back to when she was playing. She said she'd be harsh on herself and that her mental game could affect her physical play.
Achieving a new level of toughness has immensely aided her effort to recover, but there are still times when she can't help but think back to those moments right before her life forever changed.
"Sometimes, I think if I hadn't surfed for 40 minutes after feeling pain, I'd be like someone who came back for an early (evaluation) because she had movement," Willmore said. "Or I wish I'd have spent that last 30 minutes I spent struggling to get back to the hotel just enjoying the sand between my toes."
But those thoughts don't occupy her mind for long. She thinks more about getting back into therapy. She thinks more about the generosity of others both back home and in Rapid City who have raised money toward her recovery. She thinks more about family and friends helping bolster her determination to walk again.
There's a lot more work to be done to realize that goal. From coaches and teammates to family members to Willmore herself, everyone knows that full recovery isn't guaranteed. And it's a process that takes years, not months.
But deep inside there's another burst of feeling - though that ambition seems quite a distance from reality, it remains just a couple of steps away.