By Wes Morgan
Special for Second Half
The silver lining from tragedy can take a while to come into focus.
Searra Inman might not have been searching for it in the days that followed a motorcycle accident that would forever change her life.
Inman wasn’t supposed to survive the July 9 crash that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Surgeons in Indianapolis even used her as a case study due to the fact that almost no one with such severe spinal cord injuries has reached the operating table alive.
So, Inman kept living. Her goals were unchanged. And in the process of that pursuit, she slowly began to realize the lives she was touching along the way. Spurred on by an outpouring of support from her family, church, and classmates and staff at Niles Brandywine High School, Inman faced her new reality head-on.
The first item on the senior’s to-do list was to make good on a promise to herself to earn a four-year varsity wrestling plaque. The second was to reach 100 career victories.
“I love to do these things, and I don’t want to sit in bed the rest of my life and feel discouraged about the situation,” Inman said. “Instead, I pushed forward. Wrestling has helped with it. There were times in wrestling I wanted to quit and give up. Instead, I pushed through it and worked hard and gained a lot of mental strength. It helped me get through my situation.”
Veteran Bobcats wrestling coach Rex Pomranka received the news from Inman directly when visiting her in the hospital. He began talking to local officials about whether or not Inman would be allowed to take wins for the team if opponents failed to produce a wrestler at 103 pounds.
Both the officials and Inman’s doctors gave her the green light.
“She said she had a plan as to how she was going to get out on the mat and that she’d show me at our first meet, which she did,” Pomranka said.
In the season opener Dec. 5 at Bronson, Inman locked the wheels on her wheelchair, climbed down to the floor and crawled out to the circle. Very few people in attendance had any idea what was happening, including referee Kevin Raber.
“I wasn’t trying to show pity or anything, but I was thinking about other kids possibly snickering or saying something that was inappropriate,” Raber recalled. “I took a couple steps to her so she didn’t have to crawl all the way out to the middle. I raised her arm up and congratulated her.
“When it was all done, I didn’t want anything negative to happen, so I said, ‘Do you mind if I pick you up?’ She said, ‘It’s up to you.’ I said, ‘Well, I’d like to.’ So, I just picked her up. Everybody started clapping and it was a very moving moment. I didn’t realize until I was in the middle of it what was going on. Man, I had to swallow my tears in that moment. It was definitely profound and moving for me.”
Inman didn’t know what to expect as she boldly slid out of her wheelchair.
“I was nervous and so embarrassed,” she said. “I told my assistant coach that I didn’t know if I was ready to go out there. I didn’t know how it was going to look. I built up some courage, crawled out and, with everybody clapping, it made me feel like I was still out there wrestling even if there wasn’t an opponent.”
She didn’t mind the lift from Raber either.
“When he asked to carry me, I was happy,” she said. “I didn’t want to crawl back to my chair. There was somebody who wanted to help and saw how hard I was willing to push myself.”
Raber, unaware of Inman’s accident and the community’s fundraising efforts, felt compelled to donate his check from that night, as well as additional money, to Inman’s family — information he didn’t voluntarily divulge. He even made a trip to Brandywine a week later to talk to her about that emotional night.
“I was honored to be in that moment with her,” he said. “I officiate because I love the sport of wrestling. If it could help her have a little brighter Christmas, to be able to help her parents or anything, she could use it with a better purpose than I ever could have.”
Like Raber, Pomranka hardly kept it together that evening.
“I was in tears,” said Pomranka, whose brother was paralyzed in an automobile accident nearly 30 years ago. “This was a goal she was shooting for. I was trying to hide the tears; I’m was glad she was able to get back on the mat and do something she enjoyed. I’m just happy she is here to finish out her senior year.”
It was Inman’s 76th career victory. She’s now at 95 with the season winding down.
“It’s either going to happen at our last dual meet or at Districts if everything goes right,” Pomranka said of Inman reaching 100 wins. “A lot of the coaches have been really nice to bump their lineup around so she can get the forfeit. I appreciate the coaches doing that. They want to see her get to 100.”
Inman’s father, Chris, thought back to the day in the hospital when he had to deliver news no parent should have to deliver.
“For a day and a half, I was upset because I held back,” he explained. “We wanted to get all the information from the doctors. But she was starting to figure it out.
“She said, ‘Dad, tell me what’s going on?’ I walked up with tears in my eyes and she knew. ‘I’m paralyzed, aren’t I?’ She looked away with a tear in her eye and she just collected her thoughts. It was that mentality that I’ve seen from her with any challenge she has ever faced. She said she was going to walk again. From that moment on, that has been her drive. She’ll never walk without the assistance of something, but her goal is to get back upright.”
More goals include driving a car and, even if reluctantly, getting back to everyday tasks a lot less exciting than wrestling.
“My mom (Pepper) is always pushing me to do things I may not like doing, even though I’m in a wheelchair,” Inman said. “She tells me, ‘Would you have done it if you weren’t in a wheelchair?’ So, I go and do it.”
She still enjoys working on cars and motorcycles, changing the brakes on her parents’ vehicles and getting her hands greasy. But Inman’s passion is helping animals, so she plans to attend Lake Michigan College for two years before working toward a degree in veterinary medicine at Michigan State University.
Helping her get there have been a host of teachers, friends and even strangers. Teachers film their classes and send the video to Inman while she’s doing physical therapy at Mary Free Bed in Grand Rapids two days a week. Her therapists, she said, are aiding Inman in reaching a goal: She plans to surprise everyone on graduation day.
The funds raised by the community have kept the Inman’s out of what would have been crushing debt from medical bills. They’ve read and saved every well-wishing card they’ve received.
Admittedly private, Chris – who teaches at Brandywine – described how the community has rallied behind his family as a humbling experience.
“Early on they had her on a video conference live at the school,” he said. “It was a big fundraiser. They panned around and Brandywine’s cafeteria and hallway for hours was crowded. (Searra) made the comment, ‘Good grief, with this much support I can’t fail.’
“That was huge for her. I’d go into Walmart or a gas station or whatever, and people would just come up and give me a hug and ask about Searra. We started to see the impact, and people started sharing their stories and how they gained strength through Searra’s story. She didn’t even realize the impact she was having on everybody. Now she realizes her decision to stay positive and to smile has really impacted people.”
“The world sometimes is a rough, hard place,” Chris said. “You hear about all the bad stuff. You initially think you’ll never get through this. But people come out in support and share their stories, and then you realize the place where you live is pretty amazing.”
So is watching Inman smile as her hand is raised in victory.
“I have known a lot of people who have given up on something they really enjoyed because something bad happened,” she said. “I’m hoping with this situation I can bring out the best in it and give other people who don’t think they have a chance at something a reason to go out there and strive for it.”
Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Niles Brandywine wrestler Searra Inman is assisted off the mat by official Kevin Raber during a match this season. (Middle) Official John Bishop raises Inman's arm in victory during a match at Three Rivers. (Below) Brandywine coach Rex Pomranka assists Inman. (Top photo by Troy Tennyson/Coldwater Daily Reporter. Middle and below photos courtesy of JoeInsider.com.)