Woman paralyzed at waist conquers diving lessons

- A lesson in perseverance: one woman is going to great lengths to reach her goal, despite a challenge that would sideline most people for life.

Allison Nicola loves diving into a new challenge. Diving is fitting, as the 31-year-old is taking scuba diving lessons. 

For a second straight week, she arrives at the St. Petersburg Beach Community Center's pool. She has to put on a diving suit, goggles, an air tank and weights - 14 pounds of weights.

"This is a whole new opportunity for me, to start from the beginning and keep getting better and better," she said.

Nicola is paralyzed from the belly button down, thanks to a snowboarding accident 16 years ago. The weights prevent her legs from floating to the surface.

"The big challenge is to make them feel comfortable in the water," instructor Teresa Hattaway said.

Hattaway owns Jim's Dive Shop, which is a local chapter of the Dive Pirates Foundation. The organization's goal is to support, train, equip and provide dive travel to individuals with disabilities through adaptive scuba diving. Hattaway and two other instructors are working with Nicola.

The trio's goal is to raise enough money to send Nicola to the organization's annual adaptive divers trip, where Nicola would be surrounded by adaptive divers from across the country.

By then, Nicola hopes to have mastered one of her biggest goals: to spear fish.

"That seems like the biggest adventure I could find underwater," Nicola said.

Adventure and Nicola have gone hand-and-hand, and that has not changed at all since her accident. She credits those around her for continuing to push her to new challenges.

One of the first challenges for Nicola under water: somersaults. She surprised her instructors by doing those last week, the first time she's been able to do one since she was a child.

"It helps me put things into perspective," she said. "Just because something seemingly bad happened, I can still make the most out of everything."

For now, Nicola is simply enjoying the freedom the water brings her.

"It's exciting to go where I want to go, no barriers."

To learn more about the Dive Pirates Foundation, visit divepirates.org

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