Personality: Ride On
● By Aimee Cormier
By Shanna Perkins
Every day, events occur that set the course of fate into a tailspin. Sometimes they are small events and not initially recognized. Other times, their impact is impossible to ignore. Monique Koll understands this all too well. In 2012, Koll was involved in a bicycle accident that left her partially paralyzed. Her life changed in almost every way imaginable, yet she moved forward – and because of her efforts and determination the future of Acadiana is moving forward with her.
“I have a problem with people feeling sorry for themselves or for anyone else,” Koll states confidently, her quick and powerful way of speaking juxtaposing her diminutive frame. “The truth is, when you feel sorry for someone you take away their power, and I can’t have that. I don’t want anybody to feel sorry for me.”
Koll, a New Orleans native, moved to Lafayette eight years ago. Her life consisted of raising her 8-year old son Liam, practicing veterinary medicine, which was the career path she decided upon when she was 7 years old, and competing in marathons and triathlons. Nearly three years ago, Koll was training for the Big Cajun Olympic Triathlon. She was determined to complete what she deemed the biggest race of her life on her 35th birthday. On Oct. 10, 2012, Koll was riding her bike when a vehicle hit her from behind.
“I was hit 10 days before the race,” says Koll whose memories of the event are hazy. “I was hit from behind by an unlicensed, uninsured and unregistered motorist. Luckily, I was wearing my helmet. That’s not a requirement if you’re over the age of 12, but I really do believe it was the only thing that saved my life. My helmet split in half, but at least it wasn’t my head. My neck was broken, which was the only thing I broke, but that’s an important thing not to break.”
After the accident, Koll remained in the hospital for eight weeks. Initially, her “bullheaded” nature prevented her from realizing the extent of her injuries. She recalls how she still very much intended to compete in the triathlon. That is, until her birthday came and went. Slowly, her new normal began to become her reality. When she left the hospital, she was confronted with exactly how much she would have to overcome.
“What happens when you have a spinal cord injury is basically, your brain sends jumbled messages to your muscles,” Koll explains pointing out her contracted right hand. “You lose all your muscle tone, so I went from racing and being in triathlons to not being able to feed myself or tie my shoes. I just thought, ‘who wants to live like this and watch somebody else raise their child?’ When I left the hospital in a wheel chair that was another eye opener. Going home to a non-wheelchair compliant house and not having a hospital bed was really difficult.”
She reflects on periods of time when she let feelings of helplessness consume her. She struggled to find confidence and femininity in her new body. Then, one day, she accepted that her life wasn’t the same as it had been prior to her accident, but that it could be one day, if she made it happen for herself and for her son.
Seeing her son’s reaction to her injuries was one of the pivotal moments in her recovery. “His first reaction was, ‘Mom, you look like a zombie.’ He took it better than anybody else,” Koll says gleaming with pride. “I don’t think children have this idea of what’s normal and what isn’t.”
Part of Koll’s decision to persevere meant fulfilling a commitment she had made prior to her accident. In February 2013, only four months after she was injured, Koll participated in the Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon. Her then boyfriend agreed to push her wheelchair through the course. Koll intended to use her walker to cross the finish line by herself, but the two completed the race before it arrived. A determined Koll hoisted herself against her partner and they made their way across the finish line. Cameras flashed catching the tearful and triumphant moment. It didn’t take long for the powerful picture to go viral. It shot to number one on Reddit, was featured on the Today Show, the Huffington Post and by a bevy of other media outlets.
“I think it’s humorous,” Koll says of the image that garnered her so much attention. “I get a lot of people telling me I’m inspirational, but I like to say I’m ‘determinational.’ I hate the term inspirational – it’s very passive. If you go out and do something, it’s because you wanted to. It’s not because I did anything. So I think the picture is cool, but it’s kind of silly.”
Using her newfound notoriety, Koll allowed herself to become a poster child for bicycle safety advocacy. She was recently named the executive director of BikeLafayette, a non-profit organization dedicated to making Acadiana a bicycle and pedestrian-friendly community. Koll uses her story as a means to bring recognition to the issues she’s so passionate about. When Koll woke up partially paralyzed with two traffic tickets, she quickly realized how little is known about cyclists’ rights to be on the road.
“The driver ruined my life and he walked away with a traffic ticket,” she says of the way events unfolded. “It made everything really prominent. I just think that we all need to know the rules of the road. People tell me all the time, ‘you shouldn’t be on the road. It’s unsafe for cyclists.’ The truth is, whether anybody likes it or not, the law says cyclists belong on the road.”
City planning is one of the roles Koll is most dedicated to as the executive director of BikeLafayette. She threw herself into studying ways to most efficiently make Lafayette a bikeable and walkable community. Koll is inspired by cities like Portland, Ore. where the transition to a walkable city has improved the local economy, environment and health of the citizens. She also believes it could preserve Acadiana’s culture. Koll wants to protect the community she credits for supporting her through her recovery, saying, “If you have to break your neck, this might be the place to do it.”
“I do believe transitioning to a walkable and bikeable city could save our culture. If everything begins to look like Johnston Street, we’re not going to have an Acadiana culture,” she says pointedly. “Everything would be a cement jungle. Studies prove that you can’t build your way out of a traffic jam. You have to learn to use your streets more efficiently. Unless we think ahead, and plant trees and create places where kids can ride their bikes, we’re in danger of losing our beautiful culture.”
Rather than let her injuries define her, Koll allowed them to shape her life in a positive and powerful way. Her medical background reveals itself when she compares her life to microbiology’s niche theory, “I’m adapting to where I am in life right now and trying to figure out what myself and those around me need to be successful.”
Koll’s paralysis affects her right hand and because of this, she can no longer perform veterinary surgeries. The loss of the career she dreamed of since childhood hasn’t been easy, but as always, Koll adapted. To better understand aspects of city planning, she became a licensed realtor. Koll believes that keeping busy is an essential part of her recovery. In addition to being a single mother, realtor and executive director of BikeLafayette, Koll is a motivational speaker, a member of the Metropolitan Planning Organization Joint Bicycle Subcommittee, a member of the Lafayette City Government Awareness Committee for Citizens with Disabilities and a community volunteer. She is also President of the Tri-Cajuns Triathlon Club and heads the development of the statewide entity for active transportation policy and advocacy.
When asked about her future plans, Koll gazes off into the distance and responds with her quick laugh, “World domination, because the universe owes me. It owes me big!” Until then, Koll is continuing her journey to recovery, raising her son and working on her book “Determinational.” All the while, striving tirelessly to make Acadiana a safer and more enjoyable place to live and visit.