Meet Zack Collie, a new Wings for Life ambassador

“I’m an extrovert! I love seeing people, I like positive energy,” Zack Collie, a Wings for Life ambassador said in a phone call from his Southern California home as he explained his love for live music.  It’s hard to disagree with Zack’s self-analysis, he seems to exude the “attitude of gratitude” that he says has been vital in achieving his goals after sustaining a spinal cord injury at fifteen years old.

On the day he broke his neck, Zack was playing at the beach with his friends like any other Southern California teenager.  He misjudged a dive and struck his head on a sandbar. At the hospital, it became clear he’d injured his spinal cord. He says that he wishes he’d had a therapist who he could relate to after his injury in those weeks and months where he had to come to terms with his new reality.  “After my injury, there wasn't really a lot of focus on my mental health,” Zack said.  “I was 15, that was pretty young, and I never really went to therapy. It was offered to me, but I didn't want to go because I didn't want to talk to someone that didn't know what I was going through.”

Now, through his studies, work, and advocacy, Zack wants to be a source of strength for people in the position he was.  He says his biggest goal in life is “to be able to offer mental health resources or services to people that have experienced any type of physical trauma.” He’s well on his way to achieving that goal, having already completed his undergraduate and master’s degrees.  “I'm officially an associate MFT [Marriage and Family Therapist],” Zack shared, and explained that after completing 3,000 hours of therapy sessions and passing an exam, he’ll be ready to set up his own therapy practice. That way, he can spend the rest of his professional life helping people in the same position he found himself in 14 years ago.

Ever since his injury, Zack has been working hard. At first he worked hard in physical therapy, and then also at school, college, and in grad school. His goal was not just to regain as much function and independence as possible but also to inspire others with spinal cord injuries. Most importantly, Zack says, he can show them that “If you focus on the positive, you’re going to feel better.” Like any good teacher, Zack was ready with an example: “my disability has actually given my life the meaning and purpose I'd been looking for ... As much as my injury took away from me, it also set me on the path I am now where I do feel like I have a purpose.”

Helping other people is Zack’s purpose these days, and it’s one that being a Wings for Life ambassador helps him fulfill, but in the early days of his injury he looked to groups like Wings for Life to provide hope. He says this experience has shown him the value of being part of Wings for Life and sharing his progress online. “It lets you know that you know, you're not alone. And you have to go through this alone,” he says. “I got to visually see that life does go on after spinal cord injury and it doesn't have to be a bad life. You can still be happy and successful… It gave me a lot of hope that I didn't have before.”

Balancing a graduate degree, his YouTube and Instagram pages, and a demanding job can be stressful, even for someone as positive as Zack. He says he likes to unwind by gaming, something he’s enjoyed since before his injury. Thanks to a device called the Quadstick, he can play games like Call of Duty online. ”I don't feel disabled or at a disadvantage,” he says, “it kind of gives me back that competitive side of me.”

We asked Zack if there was a mantra or motto that he uses to maintain his positive outlook. He said that his motto came to him in a rare moment of paying attention in high school history class after his injury. “My history teacher said three words that never left my brain,” he said. “They became kind of like a life motto that I live by. Whenever I'm struggling or going through a hard time. I think of those words, and they are; improvise, adapt, and overcome.” These three words have helped Zack through 14 years of hard work and achievement, hopefully they can also give some strength to runners in this year’s Wings for Life World Run on May 5.