CPN Champion Spotlight: Jen French
Paralympian Jen French was first introduced to windsurfing as a college student while on her second date with her current husband, Tim. She was hooked immediately, adding to her growing list of active sports including canoeing, snowboarding, sailing, fly fishing, scuba diving and cycling.
Then in 1998 Jen’s life took a dramatic turn. As the result of a snowboarding accident, she became a quadriplegic from a C6-7 incomplete spinal cord injury (SCI). Whereas a complete SCI means total loss of function, Jen’s incomplete injury meant there was hope she would be able to continue participating in the activities she loved – with the help of technology.
“A lot of people define cure differently – some people may see cure as walking again, but not everyone does,” Jen says. “A lot of us have an image in our mind of what we were like before we were injured, and so for us, getting back to that state is so important.”
Although she was told she would never get out of a wheelchair, Jen refused to accept this fate. She sought out experimental new technologies for spinal-cord-injured individuals. In November 1999, Jen received the Implantable Stand & Transfer System provided by the Cleveland FES Center, MetroHealth Medical Center and Veterans Affairs – the first women to receive such a system. She helped advance this technology by working with the research team to test new features, push the limited of her strength and endurance, and prove the viability of this new therapy for thousands of other potential recipients including injured soldiers returning from war.
With the help of the Implantable Stand & Transfer System, Jen was not only able to continue participating in the active sports she loves, but she was able to be competitive as well. She is currently a member of the U.S. Sailing Team Sperry Top-Sider, eight-time winner of the Milan-Gruson award for top disabled female skipper and a silver medalist from the 2011 & 2012 IFDS World Championships. While representing Team USA, she won a Silver Medal at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. She was also named 2012 Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year; the first woman with a disability to do so.
Besides her personal achievements, Jen has made strides in the SCI community in other ways. As a user of neurotechnology, she is the founder and executive director of Neurotech Network, a non-profit organization whose focus is to educate the public and advocate for persons with impairments, their caregivers and health care professionals regarding neurotechnology.
She also serves on the Advisory Boards for the Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) for Cerebral Palsy project at Stanford University, the Brown University Institute for Brain Science, and the Advanced Platform Technology Center in Cleveland. To raise awareness and advocate for access, she has addressed such organizations as National Academy of Sciences, the American Physical Therapy Association, ISCoS/American Spinal Injury Association, The American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine, the American Occupational Therapy Association and NIH/NINDS Neural Interfaces.
Locally in her hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida, Jen serves as chairperson of the Committee to Advocate for Persons with Impairments for the City of St. Petersburg and is a state-trained peer mentor for SCI.
Jen's story has been featured in local and national media including Tampa Bay Times, Fox News, The Washington Post, CBC and the Wall Street Journal. Most recently, she released her book “On My Feet Again: My Journey Out of the Wheelchair Using Neurotechnology” to offer inspiration to others living with SCI. Proceeds benefit Neurotech Network and the Institute For Functional Recovery.
Jen officially became a CPN Champion in 2014, energized by the CPN Challenge’s goal to cure paralysis in the next 10 years.
“The CPN campaign is revolutionary in a lot of ways- one of them being that it is finally bringing together the scientific community in collaboration,” Jen says. “CPN understands there isn’t a silver bullet, but that a combination of things is needed to come up with a cure for paralysis.”