At 15, Ella Frech is already a world champion in wheelchair skating -- and she is aiming for more titles
ALLEN, Texas -- Ella Frech shimmies her made-to-measure wheelchair to the edge of a concrete vert bowl with a 10-foot drop at the Allen Skate Park.
The breeze is slight on this May morning. The sky is clear. Ella hesitates above the bowl. The park, a dancing hive of 20 or so mostly late-teen male skateboarders, seems to suspend in time; to pause, to look at her. Five skateboarders sit on a ledge about 30 feet away. The young men hold their boards and gape.
"People are always staring," she says, almost under her breath and fixing her gaze on the bowl. Ella tries to empty her mind of thought. Otherwise she might talk herself out of it. Right now she is thinking: Oh my gosh I hope I don't fall and die.
Ella doesn't die. She lands at the bottom of the vert bowl and carves it.
Ella Frech is a humble badass -- a soft-spoken, home-schooled girl, the fourth in a family of eight children. She's training to regain her title of women's world champion in WCMX: wheelchair skating. In her sport, athletes in wheelchairs compete at a skate park much the way athletes on skateboards and BMX bikes do -- executing drops and turns and flips.
In 2016, the first year she competed, Ella was second in the world. In 2017, Ella bested women in their 20s and 30s from across the globe to win the international title at a skate park in Grand Prairie, Texas, about an hour and a half drive from her home in Farmerville. She took 2018 off for her church confirmation, saying then: "I love skating, but God is more important than skating. I can win again another year."
It's another year, but, after health complications left her in bed for five months, Ella will spend this year training, weightlifting and playing basketball as cross-training to prepare for the world championships in 2020.
Even before Ella lost the use of her legs at age 9, she was a gutsy and talented athlete. As a youngster, she was one of the highest scorers on her recreation soccer league. She was such a skilled ballerina after two years of lessons that her ballet teacher advised her parents to let Ella audition for the Dallas Ballet.
At 8, Ella managed to knock out her two front teeth and break her jaw when she fell off her scooter. An orthodontist replaced her front teeth with two of her side teeth. She's been wearing braces "for like forever."
The paralysis in Ella's legs came slowly and unexpectedly, a rare side effect of medication to treat the rheumatoid arthritis she's had since age 7. The medication caused Guillain-Barre syndrome, which caused muscle weakness, then nerve damage below the injection site in her lower thighs.
Once a year, when Ella is not in the house, her mother, Rebecca, locks herself into her bedroom and watches the video of Ella's last dance recital. She lets herself cry.
"You have to mourn the child that was," she said. "As parents, we have dreams and plans for our children. This is the proverbial left turn at Albuquerque. Your whole plan is completely different but it's okay to mourn the plan you had."
Ella's latest health challenge began last August. Her jaw hurt. Her doctor thought it might be the braces. "So for like for a month or two, I just lived with it," she said. "And then all my joints started hurting. By October, every single joint in my body was hurting. Well, the joints I could feel."
As winter approached, "basically it hurt too much to move," Ella said. "It just takes everything out of you. Your immune system does not work. I had to wait a long time for medicine to help it but I was allergic to that medication."
She had a swollen face and hives, then had to wait longer for a new medication.
These type of flare-ups come every year or two and Ella generally needs a year to fully recover from them. One of Ella's mentors, CrossFit gym owner Angel Gonzalez, a wheelchair athlete himself, said her challenges are standard for adaptive athletes. "There's always going to be obstacles," he said. "And not everything is made accessible" for wheelchair athletes.
Take this skate park in Allen. There's a park closer to Ella's home, but it has what Rebecca calls "ableist graffiti" signs posted by the city that no one on a wheelchair may train at the park.
So Rebecca drives Ella to this one, which welcomes wheelchair athletes but is less than ideal: She can't propel off the ledges here because there is no ramp to them.
The best park for wheelchair skaters near Farmersville is the Grand Prairie park where Ella won her world championship. But to reach it, her mother must navigate downtown Dallas traffic, timing the drives so they're only 90 minutes by avoiding rush hours.
When her health is good, Ella practices with other wheelchair skaters twice monthly as well as on her own once or twice a week. Each training session lasts about five hours. Ella does tricks all the time: one-wheeled wheelies, laybacks, and going up and down the stairs in her chair.
"It's a lot on your arms and your core," Ella said. To stay strong she sometimes lifts weights at CrossFit and each weekend plays on a wheelchair basketball team, practicing two or three hours at a time. She's a forward or a floater.
Six years ago, as Ella was beginning to lose the use of her legs, Rebecca, an avid CrossFitter, took a wrong turn leaving a restroom at a CrossFit regional competition in San Antonio. She encountered Gonzalez and another adaptive athlete and began pestering them with questions about how to help her daughter thrive.
Gonzalez, one of the pioneers in adapting CrossFit for people in wheelchairs, urged Rebecca to get Ella involved with adaptive athletics. Over time, he has become a close friend of the family and a trusted mentor.
"I told [Rebecca] to grab the bull by the horns and get [Ella] involved and find what her niche will be," Gonzalez said. "She's turned out to be a great damn athlete who started kicking ass at everything she did."
While the high risk is always on Ella's mind when she's skating, the sport also exhilarates her. "(WCMX) makes me really happy once I've gotten over the fear of it. I really like going to competitions and seeing all the other people who compete," she said. "You don't see a lot of wheelchair users in everyday life so it gives me a sense of community."
Though 2020 feels far off and her body is still recovering from the flare-up, she has it all in perspective for today. "Everything hurts but you can sit around complaining about the pain or you can shut up and play."