CHOICES YOU MAKE: Okoboji graduate shares message with students, parents
One split-second decision changed Alex Watters' life forever.
A diving accident in the fall of 2004 left the Okoboji alumnus with a broken neck and paralysis from the chest down -- all because he chose to chase after a hat that had gone astray.
Today, Alex Watters tries to share the lesson he's learned. He advises first-year students at Morningside College and tours the Midwest as a professional speaker. Students from his old high school heard one of his speeches -- a message about consequences -- as part of the "Power Of Choice" program Wednesday evening.
A TRIP HOME GONE WRONG
Watters was two weeks into his freshman year at Morningside College in Sioux City when he and a few friends decided to return home a final time before the chill of fall set in. Around midnight, Watters and a friend decided to go for a short swim. The two walked out onto the dock.
Watters remembers a strong wind that night. His hat blew off, he peeled off his shirt and dove in. The night sky hid a sandbar only 18 inches below the surface. Watters' head hit the ground below. His neck snapped.
"I remember hearing the break and not knowing what that meant and not knowing what happened, needing to swim but I couldn't," the now 28-year-old said.
Watters recalls a sense of ease overtaking him.
"I was saying to myself that I had lived a really good life up to that point and if that was it then that was OK -- so I let go," he said.
He blacked out moments later. Fortunately, two of his friends were certified lifeguards. They were able to resuscitate Watters and quickly called an ambulance. The next thing the Okoboji native remembers is waking up and staring directly at a paramedic.
"I actually knew the paramedic and I said to him, 'wow, I really screwed up,'" Watters said. He was then rushed by ambulance to Lakes Regional Healthcare in Spirit Lake where he was met by his parents. Within a few moments it was determined that Watters' injuries were life-threatening. He was air-lifted to a hospital in Sioux City for emergency spinal surgery.
"I remember (my surgeon) walking around the table in the operating room in a very 'Grey's Anatomy' style and looking up at the bright lights, talking to the surgeon about what he was going to do," Watters said. "My parents came in with my pastor and we said a final prayer."
The college freshman didn't have his final day on the operating table, but he did suffer two broken vertebrate. He was paralyzed from the chest down and his long road to recovery was just beginning.
BUILDING A NEW LIFE
Watters rehabbed for six months at a hospital in Englewood, Colorado, a suburb south of Denver. It was a struggle but he was eventually able to return to Okoboji for the summer. He uses a wheelchair and has limited use of his hands and arms.
"Every aspect of my life changed -- from being able to get up in the morning, to showering, to putting clothes on -- everything changed," Watters said, recalling the adjustment to being paralyzed. "I had to find out what works for me -- from just my day-to-day life and what that meant for me going back to college."
Wednesday night's "Power of Choice" speaker knew he had two choices to shape the direction of his life.
"From the get-go I was very driven in the fact that I knew this wasn't going to define me and I was going to do something with my life, I wanted to give back," Watters said.
The present-day advisor also had to come to terms with his injuries. The spontaneity of his life was gone. He had to plan ahead and work around physical limitations.
"I struggled with a lot of things, especially once I returned home -- I struggled with the fact that I couldn't just pick up and go to a friend's house," Watters said. "I could no longer drive my car and a lot of people tend to have stairs on the front of their house and my wheelchair doesn't do too well with stairs."
A caregiver moved in with him in Okoboji to help with routines like getting dressed and having a meal. He used voice-activated devices, voice text and receives help from several different nurses. He had access to a specially-fitted van to get from place to place.
"It was all about finding creative ways to continue leading a lifestyle," Watters said.
Returning to classes at Morningside was his next priority. That summer, Watters took a course at Iowa Lakes Community College to test his limits. In his words, he passed "with flying colors." The political science major knew continuing his education was more than just a possibility, it was now a reality.
He re-enrolled at Morningside and started to get accustomed to life on campus as a quadriplegic.
"It was a big change, you feel people staring at you and, in a way I didn't let that bother me," he said. "But, I was the only one in a wheelchair. That comes with some insecurities. For the most part I am a pretty outgoing person and I was making a lot of friends and, if I was willing to laugh at my situation, it made other people comfortable. I think that comfort and confidence allowed me to be comfortable coming back, even though it was a tough transition."
Watters went on to receive a bachelor of arts degree in political science and global history in 2009. He later enrolled in graduate school at Creighton University, earning a master's of science degree in negotiation and dispute resolution in 2011.
A job with the Department of Education in Washington, D.C. was waiting for him and he later worked for the Barack Obama presidential campaign.
Watters faced even more challenges when re-entering the workforce.
"One of the biggest challenges was finding that confidence that I had in my personal life and transfer it to my professional life," the former OHS student said. "Knowing that I can do these things and I can do them well -- sometimes it's tough. If I can't get something off a desk I can become frustrated. Morningside and other positions as well have been great in asking what I need and making those accommodations to make sure I can be as successful as possible."
Today, he is a first year advisor at Morningside.
ON THE ROAD
The perseverance that got Watters to Morningside College also brought him back. The Sioux City college asked him to share his message with the incoming class of freshmen. The fall of 2009 was the first time Watters shared his life story with a room full of strangers.
"Oh, I was nervous, so nervous," Watters said. "But I was confident and I had been on the debate team in high school. The difficult part was I had never spoken in front of an audience that big, of 300 students.
"And no, I wasn't picturing them in their underwear," he said with a laugh.
The freshmen class was required to read a book called the "Happiness Project" by Gretchen Rubin. Watters told the group to find happiness in every facet of life.
"I told them how they can still find happiness even in a tough situation," Watters said. "As an able-bodied person, I liked wake-boarding and golf, but for me now it's the ability to see what's important in life."
Watters spends more time with his friends and family and is a familiar face in the Sioux City community. He is a member of several local boards, is a vice president of the Sioux City Growth Organization and an advocate for people with disabilities.
"I saw (public speaking) as an opportunity to impact the world around me. That's my driving force right now, to leave the world in a different place," Watters said. "After my speeches I'd have people come up to me and tell me how much it meant to them. It made me realize that I can do this, that I can make an impact, even if I just get to that one person."
The first-year advisor at Morningside reminded Okoboji parents and students about how the pursuit of a hat cost him his mobility. He chose to dive off a dock. He also chose to make the best of a difficult situation.
"We all make choices and a lot of times they become habits," he said. "It's a choice whether you put on a seat belt, it's a choice whether you drink that beer and drive home. When they become habits they can become comfortable and dangerous."
Watters also helped the Okoboji audience members understand how they can have an influence on others. Even the little choices, he said, are important.
"You have the ability to choose the attitude you have," he said. "No matter the choices we make something bad is going to happen to you, and hopefully it won't be a broken neck or a drunk driver but I guarantee something bad will happen. It's how you choose to deal with it. You can let it bring you down or you can choose to not let it define you."
Watters recently renewed his driver's license and purchased a customized van to fit his needs. He had to completely relearn how to drive without the use of his legs and other extremities.
A decade has passed since he was behind the wheel and it wasn't a void he needed to fill, until recently. He wants some spontaneity back in his life.
The self-professed foodie wouldn't be trying new recipes, exploring new places or meeting new people without a strong support system.
"I'm always quick to say it wasn't me, it was the people around me that pushed me and helped me," he said. "My family and friends -- they've been my rock. I think my friends struggled, in a way, more so than me with how to react. But knowing that we were still friends and nothing needed to change, that support system really helped push me forward."