It was a blinding pain, like nothing she had ever experienced.
In May, Rachel was finishing a 13-mile, 30-obstacle race in Big Bear Lake, California. Just 500 feet from the finish line, she was knocked off a two-story wall.
When she landed on her ankle, it felt like it had been hit by lightening.
“There was risk for amputation of my leg that day and they told me that,” she said. “I'm laying there in the mud thinking, 'Was that my last four seconds with my leg?’”
She suffered a severely dislocated ankle and broken fibula, which required urgent surgery.
“There were silent tears coming out of my eyes as they put that mask on me. I said, 'Am I going to be the same?' And they said, 'We're going to do the best we can.’”
Months of therapy followed. And in between, there were dark moments.
“I was laying around and there was a point where I was feeling low and I was feeling a little sorry for myself as I was recovering from surgery and just feeling like I couldn't do the things that I loved, that they had been taken from me - and why had this happened and why me?”
But through it all, she never lost faith.
“I kept knowing and trusting that there was a reason that this happened. It is your responsibility to figure out what that is and make something good come of it,” she said.
The opportunity came at the start of the season.
“Kelly (Tilley) had sent me a text saying, 'It's usually when you lose something that you find yourself.’”
As her teammates took the field, she became their cheerleader. And then, Colts Cheer Director Kelly Tilley presented them with the Community Impact Challenge.
It was a chance for Rachel to rewrite her story - to turn her missed season into something else, something bigger.
“I felt like there were times where I lost my positivity and I didn't always keep the strongest front and I felt badly about that and I want to make sure that doesn't happen for somebody else,” she said. “I knew that at some point, I wasn't going to rest until I found a better way to end this story.”
She thought about a patient she had when she was a nurse at Riley Hospital for Children.
“She was involved in a traumatic train accident. She ended up amputating her leg and I was the nurse that took her on that night off the Lifeline helicopter.”
They saved her, but they couldn’t save her leg.
“I sobbed the whole way home. She doesn't know, but I thought about her all the time,” she said. “I never saw her wake up and I just could never shake the feeling, 'What was it like and who was with her and how is she coping and what was that moment like when she woke up and realized she was never going to have her leg again?’”
Now a medical sales rep, Rachel still has a close relationship with Riley and her former colleagues there.
“I started to realize that I'm having a passion for people overcoming injury, physical therapy, and prosthetics specifically. So, I start thinking about all of that and I start looking at organizations,” she said. “A week later, I went back to Riley to visit some of the doctors that I used to work with and one surgeon that I worked with, one of his sons has a nub and he's very passionate about this cause. I kind of cornered him and started picking his brain about it.”
He introduced her to an organization, NubAbility, a nonprofit that runs limb different camps for young athletes who are amputees, to help them discover new abilities and new passions.
And suddenly, it was clear.
“The next thing I know, I'm supposed to fight for it and win this challenge and recover to come back stronger myself next year - but I'm also supposed to hunt down this Riley patient and send her.”
As the season went on, Rachel’s leg began to heal and so did her heart.
“I think you need to temporarily lose what matters most to you to learn your appreciation for it, your gratitude for it, and change your whole life perspective,” she said. “Something terrible happened, but at the end of the day, you have to be able to make lemonade out of the sourest lemon at any point. You can't control what happens to you, you can only control how you react to it.”
In December, the Colts Cheerleaders announced Rachel as the winner of the Community Impact Challenge and recognized her during the last home game of the season.
And she’s in the process of trying to find the girl who inspired it all.
“I'm going to find this girl and I'm going to tell her that she literally changed my life, whether she knows it or not.”
Now, she wants to return the favor.
With the $10,000 she was awarded through the Colts and the NFL, Rachel wants to send kids to NubAbility’s camp in Illinois this summer. And she wants her former patient to be one of them.
“I want me and all my teammates to hand pick 20 kids from Indiana. I want them to know that they were chosen by us and that something about their story spoke to us and that we wanted to find them and we were meant to find them,” she said. “I want it to be an unforgettable experience, maybe even life-changing, something that impacts them forever - the way this girl did for me.”
In Rachel’s darkest hour, it was doing for others that kept her going, gave her hope, and helped her heal.
“For this entire past season, I was the cheerleaders' cheerleader, that was my role.”
Now, she and her teammates are going to help others heal.
“It’s time for us all to go be these kids' cheerleaders and show them what that means, to show them what a cheerleader represents,” she said. “A cheerleader doesn't represent a pom-pom, it represents helping someone see their potential, being there, uplifting them, encouraging them, motivating them, inspiring them, empowering them, and allowing them to reach a height they couldn't have reached without you.”
Because that’s what her teammates did for her.
From a lost season to a found passion.
“For me and with what I endured this season and for finally feeling like something came through and there was a real purpose just makes me so emotional.”
Rachel was able to rewrite her story - and it went from a tale of misfortune to a lesson in gratitude.
“I'm so thankful to the Colts organization and the NFL for recognizing that we want to do something awesome and saying, 'We believe in you. We believe in this cause too.' All the support means the world.”