When paralysis detoured Cindy Ranii’s stellar athletic abilities, she found her way around it and is now heading for a destination few athletes ever reach.
All her life, Cindy Ranii has been a world-class athlete. By the time she was in sixth grade, the right-handed Cindy would play ping pong with her left hand to even the odds against her opponents. She proved herself a superior competitor in many sports, including bowling, tennis, baseball, croquet, badminton, darts, even pogo sticking. She often would handicap herself in order to make the matches more even, and would still come out victorious more often than not.
Then, in 2005, when Cindy was in her mid-50’s, she was stricken with a devastating illness that left her paralyzed from the chest down, and wheelchair-bound. The cause of the illness was unknown and mysterious; after suffering severe pain and loss of sensation in her extremities, she underwent a battery of tests conducted by a string of doctors and specialists, none of whom could nail down any specific disorder causing her debilitating symptoms. The tests eliminated such potential suspects as multiple sclerosis, stroke, and cerebral palsy, among others. Finally, by process of elimination and after an excruciatingly long process, Cindy was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a rare neurological disorder that is characterized by severe inflammation of the spinal cord.
Cindy was directed to an in-patient rehab facility in hopes that, with intensive efforts, she would regain mobility and sensation in her limbs. Instead, the opposite was the case. Cindy’s paralysis spread. A long-time teacher, she realized part of the problem was the facility.
“I also realized that where I was, which was at a teaching hospital, I wasn’t being cured; I was just being studied,” she says. “I decided it was time to figure out what was next.”
Cindy next moved to The Rehabilitation Center at Valley Medical Center. “Valley Med is one of 10 designated centers in the U.S. for spinal cord rehab; they’re just outstanding,” she says. “They really helped me learn about my condition and how to deal with the different issues that come with all of that. The very first day you’re there, they get you in the gym for four hours.”
In addition to her rehab activities, she researched every scrap of information she could find about her condition, including, eventually, options for wheelchair athletes.
She soon found the small community of wheelchair table tennis players and began to compete in local and regional games. “I started playing at a couple of tournaments at the Indian Community Center Table Tennis Club in Milpitas, and I didn’t do very well,” she says. “But I saw the level of play that’s needed to be competitive. Then I played another tournament in Sacramento, and while I wasn’t winning, I could see that I was getting better, and I thought, ‘OK, I can do this,'”
She has now devoted her life to the sport, with her sights set on the 2016 Paralympics. She currently ranks third in the United States and brought home a bronze medal at the 2013 Para Pan Am Table Tennis Championships in San Jose, Costa Rica.
Now 66, Cindy credits table tennis as the best possible therapy she could have found. “For me this sport has been a wonderful anti-depressant,” she says. “My adrenaline gets going. I feel really alive and vibrant, and the last thing I think about is being in a chair. There are plenty of mundane things throughout the day to remind me of that. But when I’m competing, I’m not able-bodied or disabled. I’m just an athlete.”
Here’s a glimpse of Paralympic table tennis from the 2012 London Paralympic Games. Is there a ping-pong paddle in your future?