"He would say 'No pain, no gain.' It was a daily thing," said Kathy Ondras, the Snohomish man's mother.
Christopher Allie Ondras, 30, died May 27 after an apparent accident in his wheelchair. He was taken off life support at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. His mother found him unresponsive in his Snohomish home May 25. The exact cause of his death has not yet been determined, she said.
Nearly 17 years ago, as a football player at the Snohomish Freshman Campus, Ondras suffered a devastating injury during a tackling drill. Scott and Kathy Ondras learned at Seattle's Harborview Medical Center that his fifth vertebra was fractured and his spinal cord severely damaged.
At 14, he was paralyzed from the chest down. Kathy Ondras said he had some use of his arms and shoulders, but his hands could not grasp. With the help of caregivers, he had lived in his home near his parents since shortly after graduating from Snohomish High School in 2000.
In 1999, he and his family reached a $6.25 million settlement with the Snohomish School Distict, $2 million of which covered their legal expenses. The settlement, structured for Ondras' long-term care, was paid by the distict's insurance company. A district official said at the time it was "not a finding of fault."
In 2002, while Ondras was attending Everett Commuity College, he was selected to be a torch bearer before the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. In his mechanized chair, he carried the Olympic torch for part of its route through Seattle.
Members of his family and close-knit extended family gathered at his house Thursday to share memories. Along with his parents, Chris is survived by sisters Rebecca Woodall and Kaycee Ondras, brother Brian Ondras, grandparents Gordon and Janelle Personius, close friend Alexandra Walter and many cousins and other close relatives.
"This has been absolutely heartbreaking," said Sheila Lyon, Chris' aunt and his father's sister. "We all remember how much Snohomish just rallied around Chris after he was injured."
Lyon was among many loved ones at the hospital when Ondras died. She and Kathy Ondras said he was an organ donor.
"Two people got his kidneys and two others got his corneas," Kathy Ondras said. "We didn't know he had taken the time to be a donor. It was on his driver's license," she added.
Ondras used to drive a voice-activated van. He was bothered by spasms and hadn't driven in some time, his mother said.
Although he had nearly round-the-clock care, Kathy Ondras said her son insisted on a few hours to himself each day. "He was usually very safe," she said. She believes her son's breathing may have been obstructed when he fell while in his chair.
Ondras had remodeled his home to include a full gym and an indoor pool. His mother showed a video of her son, strapped into a bungee apparatus and helped by his friend Alexandra Walter, taking steps with his weight supported from above.
"Chris was so into being able to walk again," Kathy Ondras said.
She said his ultimate goal was to turn his home gym into a place to help others with disabilities.
The family remembers many good times.
His brother, Brian Ondras, recalled trips to Arizona for Mariners spring training. Brother-in-law Kevin Woodall laughed about Ondras falling asleep at a Seahawks game last year.
"Fifty thousand people are cheering, and we look over and Chris is sleeping. They made a touchdown and I grabbed him," Woodall said.
Britta Grass, a cousin who grew up with Ondras, has fond memories of him at her wedding, out on the dance floor in his wheelchair.
"He had so much fun," she said.
Scott Ondras' favorite story about his son was hearing, second-hand, about a ski trip to Snoqualmie Pass. Two friends had taken Chris on a Ski For All Foundation outing. The group works with people with disabilities.
Chris Ondras was strapped in a sled but begged to be untethered from a skier who was helping. After Chris flew down the hill and had a crash, the friend told Scott Ondras that his first words were, "Let's do it again."
On the video his mother showed, Chris introduces Alexandra Walter as "my best friend" and talks about "walking, all bungeed up." At the end of the video, which shows his laborious effort to have one leg and then the other lifted by bungee cords, he says, "It's the first time I've walked in 15 years."
"He's running and he's free now," Lyon said. "He said to his parents one time, 'I'd give all this money back just to walk on the beach one day.'"
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
A memorial service for Christopher Ondras is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday at Snohomish Community Church, 13622 Dubuque Road, Snohomish. Gifts may be made in memory of Chris Ondras to:
- Pushing Boundaries, 4162 148th Ave. NE, Redmond, WA 98062 or www.pushing-boundaries.org.
- Or to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, www.christopherreeve.org.
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