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Paraplegic isn't bound by his wheelchair: first to roll across U.S.

Buoyed by crowds and a drive to do something 'extraordinary,' man rolls across the U.S.

July 27, 2013|By Alene Tchekmedyian, alene.tchekmedyian@latimes.com

Gabriel Cordell had been on the road for about three months.

The 42-year-old paraplegic was drenched in sweat, rolling his wheelchair through one of the most grueling stretches of his 3,100-mile, 99-day journey across the United States: the winding hills of Pennsylvania against the debilitating summer heat and humidity.

By this point, he'd ripped through dozens of pairs of gloves, recorded hundreds of hours of footage for his documentary, "Roll with Me," and busted just one set of tires on his wheelchair after rolling through roughly 2,800 miles of land since taking off in April from the Burbank YMCA.

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He was exhausted.

His eyes, as always, faced the ground. Looking ahead would only discourage him.

That's until a sea of children at summer camp, clad in yellow and red T-shirts, ran toward him, fist-pumping, clapping and cheering. Several of Cordell's crew members leading the way in a 31-foot RV had briefed the campers on Cordell's mission —he'd be the first person to roll across the United States in a manual wheelchair.

In awe, they wanted to cheer him on.

"As adults, you think this guy is minus an ability," said "Roll with Me" co-producer Chris Yanke. "To the kids, he was like a superhero."

Cordell was stunned.

"It was fuel for the soul at that particular moment," he said.

Cordell has been bound to a wheelchair for more than two decades.

On Oct. 17, 1992, he was on his way to his first acting audition in New York City. He usually took the train into the city from Long Island, but on that day, he drove. Five blocks from his home, a driver blew a red light and T-boned his Jeep Wrangler.

He was ejected from the car and hit his back against a telephone poll, crushing his spinal cord.

He woke up in the middle of the street, his steering wheel still in his hands. At that moment, he knew.

I'm paralyzed.

Years before the accident, Cordell promised himself that he was going to do something "extraordinary" with his life.

Last summer, after spending five years addicted to cocaine and crystal meth, he realized he was running out of time.

"As quickly as I checked out, I checked back in," Cordell said. "I just woke up and said, 'I'm done.'"

After doing some research, he discovered that no one had rolled across the country in a standard wheelchair. So he joined the Burbank YMCA and spent the next eight months training — physically and mentally — for his trek across the country.

His sister, Abeer Gilbert, was just one of many who called him crazy.

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