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MARC CHASE: Afraid of heights, wheelchair user prepares for five-story leap
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MARC CHASE: Afraid of heights, wheelchair user prepares for five-story leap

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On a scale of one to 10, Elizabeth Cordoba's fear of heights ranks a heart-racing, palm-sweating 11.

But Cordoba, a 58-year-old wheelchair user who has been paralyzed from the waist down for nearly three decades, is getting ready to face those fears by literally going over the edge of one of the Region's tallest buildings.

It's all part of the Over the Edge charity event, in which she's trying to raise coveted funds for Merrillville-based nonprofit, Tradewinds. It's the workplace and home she's known since shortly after immigrating to the Region about 20 years ago from South America.

To make it pay for Tradewinds, she's having to overcome one of her greatest, most paralyzing fears.

She's had more than enough practice in life leading up to this moment.

Since a bullet fired into her back in 1991 robbed her of the ability to walk, Cordoba, a native of Colombia, has mercilessly beaten back and overcome any fear a challenged life has thrown at her.

She'll be carrying a wealth of harrowing experiences to the top of Merrillville's Centier Bank tower on Oct. 12, when she will join a trusted friend and co-worker in rappelling off the tower roof in the Lake Area United Way's Over the Edge event.

The event, in which participants will go backwards off the roof and effectively shimmy down its side via rope and pulleys, is raising money for a number of Region nonprofits, including Tradewinds, which provides services to adults and children living with mental disabilities. 

Go ahead and bet against Cordoba, but you'll lose.

Her story of perseverance is enough to inspire the most nervous and reserved among us to great accomplishments.

Freezing up

I spoke with Cordoba, of Hobart, in the office of her boss and friend, Lisa Previs, last week at Tradewinds.

Cordoba works as a respite care specialist at Tradewinds, helping to transport adult and child clients to appointments or other services so the primary caregivers of those struggling with mental disabilities get much-needed breaks.

When asked last week how badly she fears heights, Cordoba first gave the "11" answer to the one-to-10-scale question.

Then Cordoba wiped the sweat from her palms and related a story of a visit she paid to her sister in Spain some five years ago.

While moving about the city she was visiting, Cordoba and her sister came to an elevated pedestrian bridge, she recalled.

"I just froze. I couldn't move," she said, noting she became a statue on the precipice of the bridge expanse.

So if she was so reluctant to cross a structurally sound bridge because of its distance from the ground, how will she possibly be able to hook on a rope and harness and then lower herself off the Centier Bank roof in October?

The likely answer to that question lies in Cordoba's seamless way of overcoming paralysis of both literal and figurative varieties.

Thawing fear

A recklessly fired bullet changed everything for Cordoba in January 1991.

At age 23, she was walking with friends on a Colombia street when a frenzied man, angry over something that reportedly had been stolen from his car, ran out of a building and randomly opened fire, she recalls.

"I remember hearing the 'POP, POP, POP,' then feeling like someone was pushing me out of the way, and I fell," Cordoba said. "But I wasn't being pushed. It was the bullet. I was shot."

The bullet entered her back, forever freezing her leg function.

Cordoba would become a wheelchair user.

And for a year after the incident, she recalls being a shut-in.

She feared facing a world that would look at her differently because of her disability.

But then she learned she could push through it.

Ultimately, she found a new rhythm in life by playing wheelchair basketball through a club in Colombia.

She became good at it — very good.

And she wanted more.

A new dream began to take shape, and she entered the United States in 1998 for a six-month stint playing wheelchair basketball.

It was the first step in a leap of faith in which Cordoba permanently would bring her wheelchair to the United States in pursuit of a dream. She left behind her homeland, friends and family, journeying alone to a place where she didn't speak the language or fully understand the culture.

She returned to the Region in the early 2000s, signing on to the roster of the Chicago Sky's women's wheelchair basketball team and playing there from 2001 to 2009.

Cordoba also was introduced to Lisa Previs, Tradewinds general manager, and the two became fast friends.

"Lisa has always had my back from day one," Cordoba told me last week. "She believed in me — gave me a job at Tradewinds when I didn't speak hardly any English."

And Cordoba pushed through, learning the English language and working in the Tradewinds child-care department starting in 2004.

"A lot of people told me I was crazy to come here by myself, but I was hoping I could make it," Cordoba said."I dreamed of playing basketball here, and fear wouldn't keep me from trying."

Today, she continues to be in a perpetual pursuit of thawing her fears to achieve her goals.

Over the edge

Count Cordoba's boss and friend, Previs, among the people who know nothing can stop Cordoba when she sets a goal for herself.

Previs has watched Cordoba's physical and language struggles over the years.

She's watched obstacles fall like a house of cards to Cordoba's will.

"Now, there's no stopping her," Previs said.

Cordoba said it's only fitting that when she rappels off the Centier Bank tower Oct. 12, Previs will be rappelling with her as both raise money for Tradewinds.

"She's always had my back, and she'll have it again when we go over together," Cordoba said.

"It's time to face the fear of heights. I have to face it. The only way to get over it is to face it."

Cordoba's life story reads like a how-to manual for conquering fear.

When she eases her way off that building, in spite of her fears — and none of us should doubt she will — a new page will be added to an epic narrative.

Local News Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 933-3327 or marc.chase@nwi.com. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/marc.chase.9 or Twitter @nwi_MarcChase. The opinions are the writer's.

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