Photos by Loren Worthington
Kaitlyn Verfuerth, 28, two-time member of the USA Paralympic tennis team, looks up at Cathedral Rock, a popular climbing spot among the red rocks of Sedona, Ariz.
“See those trails?” asks Greg Guerin, 41, her life and business partner.
“I do,” answers Verfuerth.
“That’s where we’re headed.”
Verfuerth climbs onto Guerin’s back, and together they begin the steep hike through the majestic landscape. She is perched on his back in her PiggyBackPack, a black and silver contraption that looks like a giant fanny pack/backpack outfitted with a mini-chair. Since they purchased the specialized backpack, there are not many places the two can’t go.
“There’s nothing that’s gotten in the way of us doing things, going places, seeing things,” says Guerin, who moved with Verfuerth from Tucson to Flagstaff in May 2012, where they became owners of BTO Self Serve Yogurt.
“Sometimes I get a little nervous,” admits Verfuerth, about riding on Guerin’s back up and down steep climbs. “Especially at first. And going down. You can’t stop. If he would lose his balance, we could topple down all the way to the bottom.”
That initial nervousness has not kept her from pushing herself to go for ultra-outdoor challenges. In the past few years, this Paralympic athlete has gone to the top of a volcano, dived off cliffs, and on her last birthday, jumped out of a moving plane to experience sky diving — a present from Guerin.
“Greg and I love doing things that make our adrenalin pump,” Verfuerth says. Her blue eyes sparkle as she speaks, and a small smile begins as she turns to Guerin. “You never do make it a big deal,” she says about his helping her to get from one rugged spot to another. “That’s so awesome.”
Verfuerth is no stranger to pushing herself to her limits. As a tennis player, she competed in two Paralympic Games — in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008 — and three Grand Slams. She won gold medals in both single and doubles at the 2007 Parapan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She plans to return to Rio for the Paralympic Games in 2016.
Last year she also played on the USA Women’s basketball team, traveling to Phoenix from Flagstaff for practices. She decided not to accept an invitation to try out for next year’s team so she could focus on tennis.
“I always played ball, and I played with the U of A girls when I was in school down there. But that was kind of like my cross-training for tennis.” Verfuerth attended the University of Arizona, in Tucson, on a full scholarship playing wheelchair tennis, graduating in 2012 with a psychology degree.
Verfuerth and Guerin met online when she was living in Tucson, where he grew up, and he was in San Diego, considering moving back home. But it was their initial in-person date that cemented their desire to be together.
“After our first date, I knew I had to move to Tucson ASAP,” he says.
Early Injury, Quick Recovery
Verfuerth was injured in a car accident when she was 7 years old, sustaining an L2 incomplete spinal cord injury when her mother, driving the car near their home in Port Washington, Wisc., was hit head-on by an 18-wheeler. Her mother is out of a wheelchair now, but is “full of rods,” and sometimes, says Verfuerth, guilt. Her brother, who had been in the front seat, walked away with minimal injuries.
Although she was going through a tough time adjusting physically and emotionally to her life-altering injury, she made a point to wheel herself from room to room, visiting the other patients before she went to bed. “Every night I would go around and say goodnight to everybody,” she recalls. She missed her mother, who was also recovering from their car accident.
During Verfuerth’s recent visit home, her mom pulled out a box of old letters she had received from some of the adults who were on the same floor of the hospital with Kaitlyn in 1993. As a young girl in the hospital, she dealt with her own loneliness and fear partly by visiting the grown-ups.
“They told my mom I saved their lives,” she says. “One man wrote, ‘I was ready to kill myself’ because of his injury.” But seeing that slip of a youngster wheel herself from room to room changed him. “I was just being a kid. As a kid, you’re innocent. I didn’t realize what I was doing.”
She started playing wheelchair sports shortly after her accident and began excelling in tennis in high school. Now, as she begins training for her next Paralympic games, Verfuerth also coaches the Flagstaff High School girls’ tennis team. Her first season at FHS was 2013, and the team finished with a 12-3 record.
Verfuerth says she liked working with the young players and dreams of starting a foundation for children with disabilities. “I really want to start a foundation, some kind of adaptive athletic program. Maybe tennis, basketball, downhill skiing. Maybe a summer program in Flagstaff. I want children to feel good about themselves, and see what they can do even if they are in a wheelchair,” she says. “Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean life has to suck. You can go on and do amazing things.”
First Date, Soul Mates, Sex
On their first date, Kaitlyn and Greg met at a restaurant. “And I saw this little poof of blond hair and this little blond head zipping between cars …”
Verfuerth giggles at his description of her …
“ … hauling butt. And then cruising right inside the restaurant. And I was, like (he gasps) — that’s her! I was so excited I couldn’t wait. I was probably 30, 40 feet back on my way in. That was the first time I saw Kaitlyn, and I think the only time I saw the wheelchair. Because the second we sat down, the chair went away. It was never an issue.
“People in wheelchairs are just people who can’t use their legs for some reason. And this woman, she kicks some butt.”
As the couple talks about tennis or getting outdoors or their yogurt shop, they often finish each other’s sentences. Both self-declared ADHD personalities, Guerin says sometimes it’s a challenge to remember what they started talking about at any one time. “Most of the time we have three conversations going at the same time,” says Guerin, as Verfuerth nods. “But in the end we finish all of them — eventually.”
“We talked for like seven hours” that first night, Verfuerth recalls, adding that this was her only date from the dating website. “We shut down the restaurant and even drove around to talk some more. The next day I had to see him again. We had so much in common, it felt like we had been longtime friends for years. I knew he was the one. I had never felt like this ever before. He’s my soul mate.”
Their mutual admiration and affection translates to a thriving sex life. When asked about issues of making love to a woman who is without the use of her legs, Guerin grins. He jumps off the kitchen counter where he was perched near Verfuerth, swings her around on the tall stool where she sat. He takes her legs and moves them to the right, to the left.
“As a man, these legs go wherever I want them to go.” They both laugh. “And Kaitlyn weighs 100 pounds.” He hesitates to make sure the point sinks in. “Yeah!”
For Verfuerth, her orgasms don’t necessarily come from her private parts, but from her entire body — including her head. “There are some things I can’t feel. It’s more like a pressure situation. More of a whole body thing,” she says. “It’s really mental.”
“There are angles,” Guerin adds.
“And we’re open,” she says about their ability to check out what’s happening to the other person during lovemaking.
“Hey, this is working. This isn’t working,” he continues.
“We’re open to trying other things.”
“It’s here, not there.”
“You have orgasms more times than you think,” Guerin tells her. “Because of what your body, you know — the waves and the changes in …
“ … the breathing …”
“The breathing and the fluids and the muscles contracting,” he says. “So Kaitlyn may not feel it here (gestures to his genitals) but everywhere else.”
“We can always usually get each other in the mood,” she says.
“Our sex life is insane. It’s insane,” he says.
“Sexually, emotionally, spiritually, physically, I am so blessed to have met Kaitlyn. I am lucky and grateful. I am the luckiest man on earth.”
“We’re pretty awesome,” she says. “We’re a team.”
As Guerin shakes his head at his good fortune, his smile virtually cracks open his face. Much of his delight in being with Verfuerth is this sense that he is his true and best self when he is with her. “Kaitlyn lets me be the man when I need to be,” he says about carrying her up steep paths and showing her places she might not get to on her own steam.
“My ego gets stroked because I get to take you places and be the hero,” he says.
Verfuerth gets it, and adds her own take on how her drive for independence morphed into her ability to trust Guerin. “Before Greg, I would never let anybody push me,” she says about her chair. “My mom and dad, my friends and family. They’d try to push me and I’d say, ‘Don’t touch me! I’ve got this!’ Being a woman in a wheelchair or a woman in general in our society, we want to be independent. It’s a catch-22. To go with your heart, but to be totally independent. Knowing I can do it myself.”
She says there was something about Guerin that made her fine with him pushing her chair, almost right away. She recalls how she was about to tell him, “I got this,” but decided to let him in a little closer.
“Really, Greg is my Prince Charming,” she explains. “I have to let it be and not fight it. So I let him push me.”
Verfuerth remembers when she realized she loved Guerin. “It was three months into the relationship when I felt ready to say it, say those words,” she says, still stuttering a bit on those words.
Guerin remembered that, too, and his initial reaction. “She’d give me those googly eyes and be about to say it, and I’d change the subject.” Guerin, who has been married before, simply didn’t think he was ready to hear or say, “I love you.”
“And then one time he says, ‘Kaitlyn, I think the world of you.’ I just kept teasing him about that. ‘Oh, Greg. I know you think the world of me.’”
After three months of dating, Verfuerth traveled to South Africa for two weeks of competition. That’s when they both realized this was the real thing.
“I got really sick. I missed Greg. It was like, ‘Holy Crap. I’m in love.’”
Guerin missed Verfuerth, too, recognizing the depth of his feelings.
“Lust is an emotional thing. Love is, ‘I accept you for who you are.’ Love is deciding to open up to this person for who they are,” he says. “The oogly-googly goes away. But love is ‘I can be with you for who you are.’”
They share a tender story of that acceptance about the leaks that sometimes happen in bed. “For me it’s — I feel embarrassed,” Verfuerth says softly. “Before it was, like, ‘Nobody’s going to ever accept this.’”
“For me it’s no big deal. It’s all part of accepting Kaitlyn for who she is,” he says. “Just look at my bragging rights,” he says, whipping out his smart phone to show off photos of Verfuerth on the tennis court at the Olympic games in Beijing and Athens.
“This is Kaitlyn in Beijing. This is Kaitlyn in Greece.”
As he brags on his life partner, she nods and grins.
Verfuerth and Guerin moved to Flagstaff from Tucson to open a self-serve yogurt store. While Guerin had owned several businesses over the years, for Kaitlyn, having a business was new. Like most aspects of her life, however, she moved past the fear of the unknown to open up the shop. They’re proud of the yogurt they make on-site and of their store’s homey atmosphere, which pulls in Northern Arizona University students, families and visitors. Guerin is the master yogurt maker, and both run the business and greet customers with enthusiasm.
A True Partnership
Back on the Sedona trail, Guerin’s shaved head sparkles with sweat as he hikes with 100-pound Verfuerth on his back. Every once and awhile he stops to point out where the trail includes a “gnarly” spot for mountain biking, which he’s into, and which they plan to add to Verfuerth’s sports with a handcycle.
“I’m going to put thicker shoulder straps on this when we get home so it will be easier on your shoulders,” she says.
“That’d be great.”
At one point coming back down the trail, Guerin slips, and slides down about a foot on the red rocks, the two landing with a thud. The trail is not steep there, and they are both fine.
“That was scary,” Verfuerth says.
“How’d that happen?” he wonders, turning around in search of the guilty rock. “Oh, here’s where I slipped. But we’re OK.” They finish their hike, marveling at the clear blue sky and lovely near-60-degree Sedona day.
“I mountain bike a lot and I get to see some pretty amazing places that are only accessible by bike or walking,” Guerin says. “Kaitlyn deserves to see some of these places.”
For Verfuerth and Guerin, their partnership — and it is a true partnership — broadens both of their lives.
Couples: What Keeps Us Together?
Here’s what you told us on Facebook
The question really is, what don’t Vinny and I do together? We met at work over 10 years ago in California. In 2012 we had our Big Fat Greek Wedding and my husband got his dream job that took us to West Africa. That in itself has made our relationship a bit more extraordinary. This third world country is exactly that, not so many ramps, elevators or paved roads to be found, but Vinny is the greatest pair of legs and human elevator anyone could ask for. At any other time, traveling the world (my passion) would have been a scary idea. But with Vinny I have had so many adventures that most people bet against because of their disability.
I was born with spina bifida, so as a child and young adult I became used to my limitations, but that was before Vinny came into my life. Now the question is high can we go? I love my life, and I love that there are no limits with him. We are a great team! As newlyweds we make a lot of folks sick because we still make googly eyes at one another and have weekly date nights. We travel, kayak, jet ski, and we also consider ourselves foodies, so we love trying new restaurants and cuisine. Our current hot topic — working on making babies!
— Vicki Loffelmann
I am 29 years old and was born with a rare muscle disease (part of muscular dystrophy). I use a wheelchair and can’t walk or eat. I am also on a ventilator. In 2006 I met the love of my life, Jason. He has cerebral palsy but he can walk and everything. As soon as we met each other we both fell in love right away. We do everything together, go all over the place — to the mall, the movies, the Los Angeles Zoo, Universal Studios, Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm. We love life to the top, and our story is really sweet because last year we found out we were having a baby, and sure enough, we did. Our beautiful baby girl was born in May, 2013. It was the best day of our life when we found out she has no health problems, a very normal baby. We feel very blessed from God. Our beautiful daughter is now 7 months old and still going strong. We ahave a beautiful family together.
After 20 years being disabled and 27 years married, my husband and I learned to scuba dive together, thanks to the mentoring of Diveheart in Indiana and Patriots Disabled Diving in Virginia. Excitement infusion into our love and our life!
— Rosemary Ciotti
We exercise on the Enid Trail system. We’re a walk and roll couple. She walks and I roll. Pretty good for a PPS-er older than 65 to do a mile or more.
— Grandpa Lee Langshaw
My wife, Amanda, is also disabled. She has tetraplegia, We do a lot of fun things together as a family. It has been a long road for her, but we make the best of her good days. The boys are now 9 and 15 and are always a huge help. We are a happy family and include her in just about everything we do. We have been on many trips — Las Vegas, San Diego (we especially enjoyed our trip to Sea World). They have special lines set up for people in wheelchairs and helped out with doing transfers to get Amanda on all the rides.
— Nate Martin
We laugh together. We have found humor to be one of the best cures for those pitfall moments.
— Kim Wright-Johnson
Communication and compromise. We are also a part of a couples group that meets every month. It is important to surround yourselves with positive, uplifting people who care about and support the unity of marriage. We enjoy doing things together, be it cooking in the kitchen or going for walk/rolls on accessible paths, exploring new places.
— Amy Bowerman Stevens
Nothing better than a cold night, a blanket, couch and movie together.
— Derek Raines
Communication. Understanding. Patience. Humor. We just celebrated our 25th anniversary.
— Angus MacBean
We tell each other our “funny story of the day.” It may be funny ha-ha, or it may be funny “groan” — but it keeps us connected.
— Liza McCollum