The sky’s the limit

Michelle Amerie has jumped out of airplanes, swum with sharks, scaled mountains—and faced down multiple sclerosis. Along the way, she’s learned a lot about courage, risk-taking—and what really matters

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Michelle’s life lesson learned:

Don’t allow your problems to consume you.

When Michelle Amerie jumped out of an airplane at 10,500 feet, it was like leaping from the top of six CN Towers stacked up, end over end. The air was crisp and thin. The wind whipped around her at 200 kilometres per hour, roaring in her ears and drowning out her instructor’s voice, the drone of the plane’s engine—everything except the exaggerated thumping of her own heart.

Although most skydivers are young adrenalin-driven guys, women such as 36-year-old Michelle also enjoy jumping. At least they may be somewhat like Michelle. They might have short dark hair and a lovely face with great bone structure. They could have a similar sparkle in their brown eyes, and they almost certainly share a parallel passion for thrills that push them to the limit.

Still, there are a few important differences between Michelle and most other skydivers, male or female. Because for Michelle, walking unassisted is impossible and using her arms and hands demands effort, time and concentration. For Michelle, intense fatigue is a constant threat, and a wheelchair is the most practical way to get from A to B. And for Michelle, a wildly unpredictable disease called multiple sclerosis is a permanent reality and each day is a little like jumping out of an airplane.

At first, her thrill-seeking seems kind of crazy: why would someone who struggles to do the everyday physical tasks most of us take for granted choose a sport most of us wouldn’t go near? The answer is bound up in the very essence of Michelle Amerie, in who she is and why she is a Soul Model for her partner, Raymond Cohen, and just about everyone else who knows her. It is enveloped within her ability to cope with—no, to thrive on—challenges, her love of life and her awesome courage.

Of course if you ask modest Michelle, deciding to hurl her body out of an airplane was no big deal. It was simply about making a trade. “After university, I was going to backpack through Europe like everybody else,” she says. “But at that point I had trouble walking around with the backpack empty let alone with it full, so I had to go to Europe without it.” Upon returning, Michelle, a make-lemonade-out-of-lemons kind of person, found the backpack an annoying reminder of what she couldn’t do. Instead, she wanted to focus on what she could do. “I figured I’d exchange one thrill for another. So I sold the backpack and used the money to go skydiving,” she says with a smile.

But there’s more to it than that. Even though climbing a single flight of stairs can be enough to sap Michelle’s energy for an entire day, she insists on pursuing every physical opportunity life offers her. A certified scuba diver, she has been diving with sharks in the Bahamas and swimming with dolphins in Israel. And last summer she trekked through the rugged British Columbia wilderness. Her team, Raging Estrogen, was made up of Michelle and four able-bodied women who manoeuvered her in a specially designed wheelchair.