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Rich Dixon speaks to students and staff at Luther High School in Onalaska Wednesday. Dixon is currently on a 1500 mile hand cycle ride from northern Minnesota to New Orleans. PETER THOMSOn photo

A tragic fall robbed Rich Dixon of his ability to walk and use his hands, but it was hope that became his saving grace.

His injuries left him feeling isolated, identifying with what he called the “little blue guy” painted on handicapped parking signs. Encouraging words from friends and physical therapists — and a hand-powered bicycle — helped him find new meaning in life.

Now, the 60-year-old Fort Collins, Colo., man is pedaling his hand cycle the length of the Mississippi River, a nearly 1,500-mile trek south.

Dixon talked to Luther High School students Wednesday about conquering depression and complacency after losing the use of his limbs to paralysis.

“The change happened, and it happened because of hope,” he said. “Hope is an expectation, and it’s based on faith. It’s based on a promise.”

Three words flickered onto the screen projection behind Dixon as he started recounting his story: “an interrupted life.”

Dixon was climbing a ladder to hang Christmas lights before his life-changing accident 23 years ago, he said.

“One moment he was putting up lights,” said his wife, Becky Dixon. “The next, he was staring up into the eyes of the paramedic. And life changed at that point.”

His first time in a wheelchair, Dixon couldn’t push 10 feet. He eventually returned to his job as a teacher, but his injury left him feeling helpless whenever he wasn’t in the classroom.

He was overcome by his disability.

“I couldn’t see that I had anything to give,” he said. “That was my identity.”

A physical therapist helped Dixon see the possibilities in front of him, instead of dwelling in the tragedy of the accident and of the things he lost.

The long, sleek hand cycle created a new avenue for independence.

“I really think the hand cycle was instrumental in getting me over that,” he said. “The hand cycle gave me a sense of freedom.”

Paralyzed from the chest down, Dixon’s shoulders carry all the weight when he cranks his custom-made bike. His hands are fastened to the pedals with hooks. The brake is under his arm.

Dixon is making the journey in eight legs of about 200 miles each. Already he has powered through some of the toughest riding of his life along Hwy. 35, near Prescott, pedaling up and down hills with no way to stand and brace for steep inclines.

“It’s been a lot more work than we imagined,” Dixon said.

The trip, dubbed Rich’s Ride, is also an effort to raise money for Convoy of Hope, an organization that provides food and water to children worldwide.

It is hope, after all, that Dixon credits for turning his life around.

“Hope literally changes what’s possible,” he said.

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