Aspiring Queens gymnast bravely faces unimaginable obstacle — paralysis from a devastating ski accident

·3 min read

Even in her wheelchair, Olivia Benedetto dreams of backflips and handstands, tasks that were once as easy as jumping rope or climbing stairs.

The aspiring gymnast still has the videos on her cell phone: Olivia doing a cartwheel, Olivia on the trampoline, Olivia perfecting her bridge.

Sadly, the 13-year-old Queens girl has the other video, too, the one from three months ago when she was skiing in Pennsylvania with her family and landed awkwardly on her back.

She hasn’t done a backflip or taken a single step since.

What Olivia has done is inspire everyone around her.

Though the skiing accident paralyzed her from the waist down, Olivia has been a role model for doctors and pediatric patients at Westchester’s Blythedale Children’s Hospital, from which she was discharged Friday to begin her next challenge.

“I don’t want to settle into this lifestyle,” Olivia said as she returned to her Breezy Point home. “It’s not my goal to stay in this wheelchair.”

The 90-minute trip from the Valhalla hospital to their house in the Rockaways was taking longer than it should, and Olivia was eager to get home.

Her parents had made the trip almost daily as Olivia learned new skills that would help her adjust and become more independent.

When they weren’t on the road or at the hospital lifting Olivia’s spirits, the parents were plotting changes to their beachfront bungalow to make it more accommodating.

They were already still knee-deep in renovations from Hurricane Sandy that ravaged Breezy Point in 2012. Now they have to start from scratch.

“We can’t retrofit our house,” said Olivia’s mother, Colleen Clancy. “We have to knock it down and rebuild.”

That won’t happen until various permits are approved. In the meantime, Olivia couldn’t wait to see her room, a space she hadn’t seen since February when the family decided to get a break from the pandemic isolation and took a getaway on slopes.

“It was a longer winter break than I thought,” Olivia said.

Her doctor, Kathy Silverman, admires Olivia’s optimism, even if she is a little less hopeful about her patient doing backflips again.

“I think it’s good to have goals,” said Silverman, who is one of Blythedale’s top pediatricians. “It’s good to have a plan to attain those goals. Wanting to walk is something she shouldn’t give up on. There are new treatments all the time. This is a goal-oriented girl.

“But in the meantime, she has also made it very clear that her short-term goal is to be as independent as possible.”

Olivia won’t watch the video of her fall. No one will. Her dad, Nicholas Benedetto, who shot the footage, has seen it a couple of times since the accident, but only because he had to show it to doctors.

“That’s etched in my brain forever,” he said.

“I feel like watching that video would ruin my mental state,” his daughter said.

Olivia, a self-taught gymnast, said she’d rather watch the videos of herself somersaulting on mats in the backyard.

She said they give her hope.

“You just remember what was and you want it to be again,” Clancy said.

One video is Olivia’s favorite. She does a somersault that she seamlessly follows with an elegant backflip.

Her friends are cheering in the background — even though Olivia stumbled a bit as she landed.

“That was one of my favorite moments,” Olivia said. “I just never stuck the landing.”

That’s how Olivia sees her life now — an upended adolescence with a series of twists and turns.

She’s just trying to stick the landing.

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