Paraplegic After an Accident, Rob Overcame Despair — and Met Erika
by Prachi Gupta
In 2015, one week before he was supposed to compete in a half Ironman Triathlon, Rob lost control of his bike at a sudden blind, sharp turn. He was thrown off, landing flat on his back about 20 feet down the hill. At first, he thought maybe he’d suffered a broken collar bone. But the injury turned out to be far more severe: he had cracked several ribs, his lungs had partially collapsed, and he’d fractured his spine. The accident had left him paraplegic, without any feeling or control in his legs.
As Rob, 44, began to come to terms with what had happened, he faced a choice: live with resentment and anger, or move forward. “I knew that at the bottom of that pit of despair is nothing. There’s no answer,” he says. “It happened, and you gotta deal. My brain still worked. I’m still me.”
Before the accident, Rob had been “playing the San Francisco lifestyle,” he says, meeting women through dating apps, including Bumble. He appreciated the ability to filter matches and know fairly quickly whether there was mutual interest or not. While conventional dating advice — especially for men — is geared towards netting as many matches as possible, Rob wanted to filter out anyone who didn’t share his values or wasn’t interested in a serious, committed relationship. “I’m cool with fewer matches and putting myself out there real and raw,” he says.
After the accident, he moved back to his hometown, Fresno, Calif., to focus on physical therapy and begin training as a paratriathlete. When Rob was ready to date again, he was faced with another choice: to include a photo of himself in his wheelchair on his Bumble profile, or not? For Rob, the decision was simple. “My pictures definitely included my wheelchair,” he says. “If your goal is a meaningful, long-term relationship, you gotta bring what you got.”
In terms of dating apps, he saw this as “an additional filter” to finding the right person: “I have a belief that there’s someone for everyone,” he says. “There are people in wheelchairs who have families and relationships and kids. For me, it was like, screw it. If I hear from fewer people, fantastic.”
On first dates, he was candid about what it means to be paraplegic. “Once we got into it a little bit, I’d be like, yeah there’s a lot to this,” he says. “Bowel, bladder, and incontinence and impotence problems…this is real.” Not everyone was a match: one woman ended things after two months because she wanted to be able to hike with a partner. “Here’s the rawness,” he says. “I want to hike too.” Though it hurt to hear, however, he appreciated her honesty.
By staying true to himself, Rob found an ideal partner in Erika, who found his positive attitude and his forthrightness “very refreshing.” They matched on Bumble in 2018. She lived in Los Angeles and Rob was in Fresno, so they relied on phone calls and FaceTime to get to know each other. “It meant we had to have an actual conversation, and I would see him rolling around in his wheelchair,” she says. That’s when it really sunk in that the wheelchair “was not an accessory” — it was central to Rob’s life.
Like Rob, Erika is an endurance athlete. “I’m a huge outdoor person,” she says. “And then my thought was, eh, I have friends to go hiking with. It’s not the end-all be-all that I have my partner do that with me…I need someone who will be there for me in other ways.” Yet, in their first several outings together, they quickly realized there were a lot of physical activities they could share. Erika joined Rob in a race for the Challenged Athletes Foundation, they went to Yosemite National Park and hiked on a wheelchair-accessible trail, and not long after, Rob attended a yoga class that Erika taught. “It was a great experience, and I was able to share a part of what I do with him,” she says.
Things moved pretty quickly after that. A year later, the couple purchased a home together in Los Angeles and have been working from home together through the pandemic. Although some friends and family members have asked about a wedding, they have no plans for marriage. What’s most important — as in Rob’s approach to dating — is to be consistent and honest. “We knew what we wanted at this stage in our lives, and [marriage] didn’t seem necessary,” Rob says. “It felt natural to commit, and say this is it. I just want to focus on having a real bond and a real relationship.”