Carly Pearson Climbs Past the Fire with Catalyst Sports

Editor’s Note: Carly Pearson, of Knoxville, Tennessee, has faced more than one type of fire in her life – and she continues to win against them all, thanks to her inner flame and the support of organizations like Catalyst Sports.

Why Carly Pearson Became a Firefighter

5I grew up on a farm and was more or less a tomboy. I loved being outside. One of my advisors, after looking over my interests, said I might want to consider getting a degree in forestry because I liked being outdoors so much. In one of the first forestry courses I took in college, our professor took a group of us on a field trip to learn how to do a prescribed burn in South Carolina.

That’s when I fell in love with forest fires and understood the need for burning wood lots to clean up the litter on the forest floors. I also learned how to put out forest fires once the prescribed burn ended. Then I knew exactly what I wanted to do for a career. After graduating from college with a forestry degree, I moved to Idaho to work for the U.S. Forest Service, and that job launched my career in fighting wildfires. My goal when I left college was to become a wildland firefighter.

I knew that in this profession I’d get to work outside and travel and fight fires all over the U.S. Due to my efforts and the efforts of the people I worked with, we could help people save their homes, properties and possibly their lives.

I’ve always felt like firefighting was a noble profession because we were serving the people we were protecting.

3My job in the Forest Service was in aviation. My specific job was in helicopter management. I was a part of a firefighting group that used helicopters to reach the fires, instead of fire engines. Our helicopters would get us as close as possible to the fires and the land, and then we could establish a base to set up to fight major forest fires. I went to a very large fire in Nevada, the Eureka Complex. The wind shifted during the night, and we had to move our fire camp in the middle of the night to reach safety.

In Oregon in the Umpqua National Forest, the Tiller was also a major fire and was the fire where I got injured That fire burned 60,000 acres of forest land. At that time, I was a helicopter manager.

I managed the aircraft that went up and dropped water on the fire. I was the company liaison between the people who owned the aircraft and our firefighters. The government contracted out aircraft to help fight fires, and I was in charge of setting up those contracts. I also made sure the firefighters had all the equipment they needed, so that we as firefighters could do our jobs correctly.

On the Umpqua National Forest fire, I was responsible for two helicopters and the firefighting teams assigned to those helicopters. This fire was so large that there were 15 different aircraft assigned to fight the fire. In remote locations where we fight fires, we try and set up a heli-base (an outpost for the helicopter and the firefighting crews that are assigned to a certain section of the fire).


During this fire, we found a field that was close to the fire to set up camp. To cool down, I went down to a nearby river.

As I went to the river, I fell 25 feet, hit a rock and landed in the river.

One of my fellow firefighters heard the commotion by the river, came down and with the help of other firefighters pulled me out of the water. Because we had helicopters with us, and my accident was a medical emergency, I was put on a backboard and medevacked from the fire to the hospital.

What Happened After Carly Fell

One of the advantages we have as firefighters is we always have someone with us who is trained in emergency medicine. I really don’t know who all got me out of the water and on the backboard because from the time I fell, I was in and out of consciousness. I remember getting to the emergency room and talking to the doctors and nurses. I knew early on I had messed myself up pretty bad. I was 27 years old at the time of the accident, I wasn’t married, I’d been living my dream of being a wildfire firefighter, and now I was in the hospital with an uncertain future.

I remember the moment that I knew nothing in my life ever would again be the same.

When they asked me in the ER if I could feel my legs, and I couldn’t, I realized I’d probably never walk. But I forced that thought to the back of my mind and held out hope that the inevitable might not happen. Three days after I was admitted I had surgery, and after surgery I was told I had a T-12, L-1 incomplete spinal cord injury.


Today I’m paralyzed from the waist down, with a little movement in my legs. I can walk with leg braces, but they’re just not practical for daily living. The reality of how my life would have to change set in quickly, but I refused to think about it. I mentally wrote my injury off as a bad nightmare from which I surely would wake up. I thought about my life before the injury. I grew up on a farm, I loved being outdoors, and I really enjoyed sports, I’d gone to college and become a firefighter – now what was I going to do in a wheelchair?

I decided I’d rather be someone else besides me and somewhere else besides in a wheelchair.

I spent two weeks in rehab in Oregon, before flying back to my home in Tennessee. I was in rehab there for two months, and I developed a rare syndrome that complicated my recovery. I constantly threw up. While going through rehab and being in the hospital, I became very comfortable with other people with disabilities; but then I had to move back home with my parents.


That was a blow to me. I’d been independent since I went to college, I’d lived on my own, I’d fought fires in several states, and then I had to go home as a 27-year-old to be taken care of by my parents as though I was a child.

One of the downers associated with my becoming disabled was this sense of losing my independence.

18I had a very supportive family who demonstrated tough love by forcing me to go out into the community and making me go to the gym to work out, even when I didn’t want to go there. I did outpatient therapy for about 1-1/2 years to try and regain the mobility and the strength that I possibly had left. One day I woke up to the fact that I wasn’t really living my life. I was like a hamster on a wheel, going round and round but accomplishing nothing.

How Carly Discovered Adaptive Sports

I was injured on August 17, 2002. I got married and had a son in 2005. I had learned about adaptive sports, but they really weren’t on my radar screen.

I didn’t have any sports equipment and didn’t know what was available for people to participate in adaptive sports.

My sister talked me into competing in a triathlon. I borrowed some equipment, started training, competed and hoped that I might enjoy these sports. Before people had tried to get me into music, crafts and other types of in house activities, but I wasn’t interested.

Another friend encouraged me to compete in a 22-mile road race. I borrowed a hand cycle and finished in third place, although I hadn’t trained for the race. I became excited about road racing. I got my own hand cycle and trained hard. In 2009, I attended some training camps. I made the U.S. National Team for Para-Cycling and Para-Triathlon and traveled and  competed internationally, winning a silver medal at the ITU Para-Triathlon World Championships in Budapest, Hungary.

I also competed in several para-cycling races in the Middle East for the U.S. National Para-Cycling Team. I was married and had my son, who today is 10. Later I had a daughter, who is 4 years old today. After I was divorced, I couldn’t take my children to cycling races. I couldn’t afford childcare to take care of them while I trained. With two children to raise, sports went by the wayside. But I knew I needed to get back into good physical condition.


A Spark of Hope Appears in a Friend

Carlyworks hard to build her strength for competition.
Carlyworks hard to build her strength for competition.

Then I met Eric Gray, the Director of Catalyst Sports, a non-profit organization that helps people with disabilities participate in non-mainstream sports, like rock climbing, kayaking and cycling. I went to the first clinic, a rock climbing one conducted in a gym with rock climbing walls 30’ to 50’ high.

A chapter of Catalyst was opened in Knoxville, my hometown, so I really got into rock climbing for exercise. I also wouldn’t have to be gone 2 hours a day training to compete as a cyclist. The gym allowed me to bring my children with me when I trained. To date, I’ve gone on one rock climbing adventure near Atlanta and want to do more climbing outdoors, but I haven’t found those opportunities yet.

Because I have a lower level spinal cord injury, I use the same type of harness, ropes, chalk and carabiners that other rock climbers use. I’m attached to a belay, and I compete in the seated category. I do all my climbing with my hands, arms and back muscles, which is much like doing a large number of one-handed pull-ups, alternating hands or going up a ladder, using only your hands, arms and back muscles.

In 2015, I won the USA Paraclimbing National Championship. I’ll compete again in July, 2016, to defend my title. The community of rock climbers has welcomed people with disabilities into the sport. They are extremely helpful, and we usually have a large contingency of volunteers who come to our climbing events and help us.


For me, rock climbing allows me to develop a strategy to overcome my body. Much like running, in rock climbing, you compete against yourself to better your time, go further faster and reach the top quicker. I have to overcome numbers of barriers that have the potential to defeat me. However, by reaching the top of the wall or the climb, I can look down and see how far I’ve come and the obstacles I’ve overcome to reach the top.

Promo: The Climb from Buck Kahler on Vimeo.

This climbing experience is a metaphor for life, because after a long struggle, we all need to look back at where we’ve come from and recognize what we’ve accomplished.

Climbing is also a sport I can do with my family, since both my children like to climb. A skill I’ve learned from climbing is to focus on the one thing I have to do to get from where I am to where I want to be. This byproduct of climbing has helped my son better focus on his school work.


How You Can Climb with Catalyst Sports

Had it not been for Ronny Dixon, I don’t believe that climbing ever would have been brought to the disability community. An amputee climber, he helped paraclimbing get started in 2012.

catalyst sports become inspired

I would encourage anyone with a disability to try and find a gym with a wall you can climb. You also can go to and the USA Climbing website to find the nearest gym with a climbing wall. A World’s Championship will be held in September, 2016, in Paris, France, and I’m training right now to hopefully qualify for that competition.

In 2011, Catalyst Sports opened the world of adaptive climbing to the Southeast. Since then, they have became the largest adaptive climbing program in the country working with over 800 unique climbers annually. They strive to provide the best experience to everyone with different abilities.

Catalyst Sports is a 501c3 non-profit organization, and has chapters across the Southeast. See all of their upcoming events at: individuals, both participants and volunteers, need to sign a waiver before participating.

Why Participate in the Ms. Wheelchair Pageant


Although I’ve never been a girly-girl, friends encouraged me for five years to participate in the Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee pageant. I did some research and learned that the purpose of this pageant was to celebrate women in wheelchairs and give them an opportunity to become an advocate for people with disabilities. I entered with a platform of “Raising Awareness for Adaptive Sports and Recreation.”

I go to the Miss Wheelchair America competition in August, 2016, representing Tennessee. I want to help people with disabilities understand that sports and recreation can improve their quality of life, and there are organizations who will help find equipment they can use.

To learn more about Carly Pearson, go to

About the Author:John-E_-Phillips
For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at


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