JUNE 23, 2016 IS THE DAY THAT CHANGED ANNE NELSON’S LIFE. June 23, 2016 is the day Anne Nelson’s life did not change at all.

Nelson had returned to her hometown of Madison, Ala. after her first year at Auburn and was riding around that night with two hometown friends. She was in the back seat when the driver lost control of the car and smashed into a concrete culvert.

Nelson, a nursing major and dance minor, knew immediately something was wrong. “I do sort of remember thinking, I can’t feel my legs, and I couldn’t move them either,” said Nelson. “In the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘I really hope that my spine’s okay.’”

Nelson’s spine was dislocated and fractured, and she had broken her right arm in two places. What followed was five days in the ICU at Huntsville Hospital, where she had a spinal fusion and exploratory surgery. It was sometime after those first confusing, painful days, and the weeks of rehab that followed at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, that Nelson determined she would walk again. And just as important, she would dance again.   

When Associate Theater Professor Adrienne Wilson heard the news of Nelson’s accident, she was in shock. She taught Nelson dance in her first year and cast her in a spring concert as a freshman. She wondered if she would return to Auburn, or to dance. That changed when Nelson called her before the start of the spring 2017 semester. “I’m coming back and want to finish my minor,” she said. “Let’s meet.”

That meeting would change both of them. “She came zooming in the front door in the wheelchair and her amazing, beautiful spirit hadn’t changed at all,” said Wilson. “Most people would be in a different place. Not Anne.”

Wilson summoned her academic training in the movement therapy called somatics, as well as dance science, to get Nelson moving again. Together, they created dances and assignments that had never been done at Auburn.

For Nelson, who feared the accident had stripped away her passion, getting back in the studio was therapeutic, but harder than anticipated.

“I was still really unsure I could ever have the same feelings that I felt [before the accident] dancing,” said Nelson. “When I would dance with my whole body, it felt like I was all in. And in the chair, I felt like I was half in….”

Each refusing to let the other down, Wilson gave choreography to the class and allowed Nelson to adapt it. Then she had Nelson create her own choreography for the class so they could learn how she moved. Slowly, the lifelong dancer found her passion again.

Nelson earned a coveted solo show for the spring 2018 season. Her performance, called “Unpaved,” was an expression of her uncharted journey toward reclaiming her life.

Not satisfied, Nelson started taking ballet classes with Senior Theater Lecturer Jeri Dickey. Ballet held a special place for Nelson, who as a third-generation dancer, remembers walking around the house in her mom’s pointe shoes and crying the day she got her own.

Dickey quickly realized what a leader she was. “Without even speaking the words, it’s very obvious from day one, everyone is very inspired by her,” Dickey said. “She brings up the level of work ethic in the class because what is someone going to use for an excuse?”

Dickey was so inspired that she did not hesitate to see if Nelson wanted to do aerial silks, the dance discipline that has a performer suspended in the air on fabric lines. Dickey is a certified instructor. 

“Other than standing for the first time, that was super hard,” Nelson said of trying the aerial silks. “It’s just so intense; you’re pulling your whole body weight with your arms and your core. Luckily, from Mark I have built a very strong upper body, so it was perfect timing to get into it.”

“Mark” is Mark Fuller ’92, the sports performance coordinator at RehabWorks in Auburn who has done full-body weight training with Nelson since late 2017. While he has helped Nelson get out of her chair and carry two 30-pound weights across a room, she is inspiring him and his team.

“Because of Anne, and the confidence she gave me, I am now training more people with disabilities or who are fragile,” Fuller said. “She has affected our whole office.”

Now a junior, Nelson is starting Auburn’s nursing program in the fall and often walks only with canes. She is miles away from that terrible day in 2016 and the people who doubted what her life could become.

“I took [the doubts] as an open book, so I’m just writing what I want in it,” Nelson said. “There is no period at the end of my sentence. I don’t do really well with limitations.”