Erica Cole Embraces the New Normal
After losing a leg in a car accident, the clothing designer discovered grace in scuba diving
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Erica Cole told her story to producer Shweta Watwe for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
And then I was thinking, What if I can’t tread water in the same way? Because you’re kicking to stay afloat. I was like, What if I jump in and just start sinking?
I’m originally from Iowa. I just recently moved to Richmond, Virginia. I am the founder and CEO of No Limbits, which is an adaptive apparel brand for people with disabilities. I’m an amputee, I started it for myself on a sewing machine, and then it grew into a full-fledged startup.
I say adaptive fashion is one of my passions. And scuba diving is definitely the other.
Before my accident, I was actually living in New Mexico for a while. I was hiking a ton, like 30, 40 miles a week, and I was working a full-time job. I was the mascot at my university, so that’s a fun fact about me. I was going to all the football games in a giant suit and running around, it was actually very physically demanding. I was a ballroom dancer, on top of coaching P90X. So I was just unreasonably fit.
I lost my leg in an accident in 2018. It was a very sudden car accident. I didn’t really have much of a choice. I know a lot of amputees struggle with, do they keep their limb, do they try to go through surgeries to save it? I didn’t have to go through that.
I was in the hospital for a month. The day after I got out of the hospital, I was like, I have been in this room for so long. I think there were some heavy pain meds in me that were saying, What did we do before to get some dopamine? And I would always go for a hike, do something active. So I was like, Yes, Rocky Mountain National Park, let’s go.
I got my first prosthetic, and it was way harder to walk on than I thought it would be. It was summer, but we were going up to the alpine area of the Rocky Mountains. So it was nice and green on the way up. And then as we got closer to the top, there was some snow.
Since the accident, I had trouble thermo-regulating. So I remember, my dad was in long pants and a coat, and I was in shorts and a light sweatshirt, and I was sweating trying to go through on these crutches. I remember my dad being like, “What are you doing? Why are you doing this?” And I was like, “No, it’s fine, it’s fine. I’m fine. We’re just going on a hike.”
I was treated like a fragile doll by some people. So I think on that hike, too, I was trying to show that, oh no, I’m still the same Erica as before. You don’t need to treat me like this fragile thing or this poor victim. But it was me forcing myself to try to get back to some sense of normalcy in a way that was not quite the approach that ended up being most effective for me.
Struggling to do a quarter mile really highlighted how much I had lost, and then how much I had to regain to get back to what my normal was. That moment it was settling in, like, Yeah, this is gonna be a longer journey than I originally anticipated it being.
About a year after that hike, I decided that I would like to take this scuba class. I emailed the instructor of the class saying, “I really want to take your class, but I’m an amputee. Do you think that I can take this?” And honestly, I was expecting him to say no, because I’d had all of these people tell me, “No, you can’t do that,” in this journey of trying to use a prosthetic and trying to walk on a prosthetic and all of that. I’m not sure why I even decided to take the chance. I actually think there was a part of me that maybe wanted him to say, “No.” To just confirm that me wallowing in self-pity was appropriate, that there were all these things that I couldn’t do.
So then when he said, “Yes,” I was super caught off-guard. He was like, “We’re gonna make a mermaid out of you.”
Taking this class was the first time I had even gotten swimming since my amputation. And then I was thinking, What if I can’t like tread water in the same way? I was like, Man, am I gonna be out, just right out the gate? But no, I got in and I was treading water and I was like, Oh, OK, this is gonna be OK.
Nobody’s paying me any attention other than just, “Hey, hop in the pool. Let’s go.” It was a very friendly, accepting environment.
There was the pre-accident Erica, and then there was the post-accident Erica. But this group of people that I was meeting at my scuba class, they didn’t know pre-accident Erica. There was only the current Erica. They weren’t treating me like this fragile thing. This was the person that they had known all along. They were just like, “Yeah, That’s Erica, she’s a scuba diver.”
I was pretty hooked on diving. Maybe not from the first dive; the first dive is not typically people’s most comfortable experience. But the second dive when you’re like, OK, I’m not gonna die underwater, I was like, Oh yeah, this is for me.
Just imagine caves made out of coral, and the water absorbs light in a way that when you’re underwater, everything looks kind of green-blue. You’re diving through massive towers; it’s like an underwater city of coral. You carry a light with you, and then when you shine a light on the coral, all of the colors come back into the coral, and it’s just kind of a psychedelic, kaleidoscopic wonderland.
You could watch just a square foot of this reef and see hundreds of fish, because everything’s so tiny. It was the most beautiful, incredible experience I’ve ever had.
The other thing is that you’re really focusing on your breathing, because your breathing is how you control your buoyancy. So it almost forces you into this meditative state. The only thing you can hear is your inhale and exhale of all these bubbles. Underwater, there’s no room to think about anything else.
I was suddenly feeling so graceful when, for the previous year and a half since my amputation, I was feeling like the clunkiest, most awkward person. You’re getting around on crutches. It’s not a graceful journey. But then being underwater and being able to really control where you’re going, moving around just like everybody else. Being able to enter this world where I feel in control of where I’m going. I feel this weightlessness. It was a shift in: this is my reality now.
A phrase that I’ve come to use is, “Embrace the new normal.” Embrace this moment instead of thinking about what could have been or what was. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in, What’s next, what’s next, what’s next? But just take a moment and relax.
That meditative time in scuba where you’re just focusing on breathing, and you’re feeling this weightlessness and you’re just listening to your own bubbles, that forces me into that state.
Erica Cole is the founder and CEO of No Limbits, a ready-to-wear adaptive clothing brand for people with disabilities. No Limbits was also featured on “Shark Tank.”