Kathy Ormsby’s life changed forever the night of June 4, 1986.
A decade later, the former college track star still doesn’t know what compelled her to leave an NCAA race, run to a nearby bridge and dive head-first onto the banks of the White River.
The 40-foot fall left her paralyzed from the waist down.
“Nobody pushed me,” Ormsby told the Indianapolis Star. “I don’t deny I did it, but why, I don’t know. I used to want to have a nice, neat little answer: This is it. I’ll always wonder a little, but now I’m at peace with it. I don’t want to analyze it anymore.”
In May 1986, Ormsby set an NCAA record by running her first 10,000-meter race in 36 minutes, 36.2 seconds at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia.
The following month, the junior at North Carolina State was the favorite at the NCAA Championships at the Indiana Track and Field Stadium in Indianapolis.
Running with the lead pack beyond the 6,500 mark, Ormsby suddenly ran off the track and across a field. She climbed a chainlink fence and ran to a nearby bridge and dove into the White River’s banks.
The impact caused severe spinal cord damage that left her paralyzed from the waist down, a punctured lung and two broken ribs.
Ormsby, who spoke to the Star at her home in Wilmington, N.C., recalls only “snatches” of that evening. She said she was not thinking rationally when she left the race.
In three previous races, Ormsby had suffered panic attacks: overwhelming, irrational fear of impending doom, racing heart rate and difficulty breathing.
But not on June 4, 1986. That night, she felt barely able to move - until she left the track, carried away by a burst of energy.
“It was like something snapped,” she said.
Ormsby has been in therapy, talked to psychologists, coaches, teammates, family and friends. She is convinced that what happened resulted from a confluence of physical, mental and emotional factors combined with stress, physical exertion and a misguided sense of personal responsibility.
“I think if any one of those factors had been taken out, it wouldn’t have happened,” said Ormsby, who works as an occupational therapist at Wilmington Hand Rehabilitation Center.
“People say I did it because I wasn’t winning the race. I won very few races. That wasn’t it. It’s like I was out of control.”
Ormsby’s mother Sallie said her daughter’s concern for others has helped her deal with her paralysis.
“Her world doesn’t revolve around herself,” Sallie Ormsby said. “I think that helps you, when you see that other people have problems and other people need help. But I think she was that way even before she got hurt.”
Ormsby’s father Dale said the turning point of his daughter’s recovery came after 10 days at an Indianapolis hospital and another couple of months at Duke University Medical Center.
Dale Ormsby had brought several cars home to his daughter, but none suited her. She struggled to lift herself, then her chair into a car until he found one with a big, wide front door.
“You could see the change,” he said. “She felt, ‘Oh, yes. I can do this. I can drive.’ I think she felt she was going to be confined to home. She turned the corner.”
Ormsby still has the mail she received after the incident. More than 1,200 letters came from throughout the world.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.