It’s been seven years since Taejun “TJ” Lee lived the college life at Cal State Fullerton. Since then, he’s snagged a career as an assistant occupational therapist and is inspiring friends to join athletic competitions with him, despite his own physical limitations.
In September of 2003, when Lee was 18 years old and a recent high school graduate, he and two other friends were in a major car accident on the way back from a San Francisco road trip.
On an empty road in Bakersfield, Lee said his friend fell asleep at the wheel and was knocked unconscious after his car rolled around 10 times into a ditch on the side of the road. He was immediately concerned about his friends but then realized he couldn’t move himself.
The accident left Lee with a spinal cord injury at the C4-C5 cervical level. Doctors told Lee he had a 10 percent chance to walk again. He was paralyzed from the neck down for almost a year, but has been able to slowly recover and gain mobility with the help of therapy.
Lee was a CSUF transfer student and earned his bachelor’s degree in health science with an emphasis on health education in 2011. Now, the 33-year-old does children’s therapy and travel therapy at rehab and nursing facilities.
He was also very active on campus as a member of the Pilipino American Student Association, Association of Chinese Students and the Peer Health University Network. Lee was one of the founding members of Alpha Phi Omega, a coed community service fraternity on campus.
Lee’s accident pushed him into his career today, because of his ability to relate to his therapy patients with his own experience.
“It was like double-dipping, I could find out more about myself and, at the same time, achieve something,” Lee said.
His experiences allowed him to see his therapy sessions from the other side of the spectrum. He reassures his clients he doesn’t have them do anything he wouldn’t do himself.
“A lot of therapy is very personal because I do it too. Every day is therapy,” Lee said.
Looking for work right out of college was tough for Lee – he figured people in the therapy field would be more accepting of people with disabilities, but that wasn’t his experience.
“People said, ‘Oh, you don’t have any experience,’ but I never emphasized that ‘Being disabled is more experience than you guys will ever have.’ I’ve been disabled since 2003 and that’s all experience in occupational and physical therapy,” Lee said.
In 2015, Lee was convinced by a friend to participate in the Spartan Sprint, a three-mile course with 20 to 30 obstacles, according to its website.
“I thought, ‘Why would a disabled person do that kind of stuff? That’s not me,’” Lee said.
Lee gave himself three and a half months to train, and with the help of his friends carrying him through obstacles and sharing burpees for penalties, the group crossed the finish line in close to five hours.
“He doesn’t have a strong grip and he has limited mobility of his legs so I never knew he would do it himself, but I think his own determination is what got him to do it,” said Christian Almonte, who completed the Spartan Sprint with Lee and has known him for eight years.
The euphoric runners high of crossing the finish line that day started Lee’s obsession with races.
“It was a really empowering day. It was a hot day, the conditions were rough, there was dust, but he was smiling throughout the whole course,” Almonte said.
Last September, Lee traveled to Park City, Utah for the Red Bull 400, which is considered the world’s toughest 400-meter race, according to the Red Bull 400 website. The hill used for the race is normally used as an air jump for skiers in the Olympics.
“It’s a lot, physically and mentally, to push yourself to that point every time. I like it because it makes me feel alive and it’s fun,” Lee said. “Everything I trained for wasn’t how it actually went. Everything was harder and longer but I was still able to adapt and practice what I preach.”
Earlier this year, Lee also completed his first adaptive triathlon, which was a five-kilometer walk, 11-mile bike ride and 150-meter swim.
“It’s cool because he wants to be sure he knows where he stands in life in terms of his physical abilities,” said Aris Paracuelles, one of Lee’s friends from college.
Lee said he has completed three Spartan Races, the Red Bull 400, two adaptive bike rides (a 38-mile ride and 22-mile ride) and more than a handful of 5K races.
He walks with a limp and uses crutches but feels stronger both mentally and physically. Lee plans to continue competing in events later this year but wants to find balance between doing competitions and focusing on his profession.
“Is it amazing because I have a disability or is it amazing because you would never do it in the first place?” Lee said. “I’m always the underdog when I do things because you don’t expect it, but that’s when I find out I have more power than I thought.”