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Reeve offers hope to school victims

Speaking in Vail, actor tells Columbine teen confined to wheelchair that she will walk again

By Holly Kurtz
Denver Rocky Mountain News Staff Writer

VAIL -- If hope were a movie, actor Christopher Reeve would have spoken the opening lines Saturday afternoon.

"You're going to be walking," he told wheelchair-bound Columbine student Anne Marie Hochhalter during a quiet moment at Vail's Golden Peak Lodge.

"I'm serious. You're going to be walking."

Reeve should know. After becoming paralyzed in a horseback-riding accident five years ago, he founded the Christopher Reeve Foundation, which merged last May with the American Paralysis Association to become the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation.

He was in Vail this weekend for the American Ski Classic. Before his accident, he competed in the event. Now it's a benefit for his foundation.

To help promote the event, he met with students Hochhalter, Richard Castaldo and Sean Graves, who suffered spinal cord injuries as a result of the April 20 Columbine High shootings. Like Reeve, all three now use wheelchairs. Unlike Reeve, 47, all three have the advantage of being teen-agers at a time when medical advances are bringing a cure closer every day.

"No, it's not out of the realm of possibility (that they will walk again)," said Mitch Stoller, president of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. "I think that research is going at a faster and faster pace. The fact that they are young, it helps. They have wonderful opportunities."

The foundation is helping realize these opportunities for the 400,000 Americans who have spinal-cord injuries. Recent advances include those made by a Swiss doctor who has been able to regenerate human nerve cells.

Money is pouring in. Six years ago, when Stoller started at the American Paralysis Association, it raised $1.7 million annually. This past year, the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation raised more than $9 million.

Reeve hoped to raise more funds Saturday night at a benefit and silent auction that last year netted $200,000. On the auction block were walk-on roles in the TV shows Frasier, Spin City and Party of Five.

"The more we raise, the sooner we will all be able to say goodbye to these chairs," Reeve said as he sat flanked by the three Columbine students.

Reeve sent the students three-minute video greetings soon after they were injured. This was the first face-to-face meeting with them. Reeve doesn't travel much. And Colorado's thin air makes it tough for his ventilator to take in enough oxygen.

But despite his high-altitude-induced fatigue, he set time aside to speak to each student.

When Hochhalter asked whether she could feel the former Superman's biceps, he said, "Sure." When Graves wheeled up next to him, Reeve inquired about the boy's weightlifting routine.

"Nothing is impossible," Reeve said, "whether it's a moon mission or repairing the spinal cord."

Contact Holly Kurtz at (303) 892-5082 or kurtzh@RockyMountainNews.com.

March 12, 2000