The Real Wonder Woman: Ashley Nelson

A horrible accident left Ashley Nelson partially paralyzed and with a brain injury — but even that couldn't quell her competitive spirit.

Photo: Photography by Jay Boncodin

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

On April 19, 2009, competitive cyclist and nutrition and kinesiology student Ashley Nelson began her day in the San Francisco Bay Area like any other — going on a bike ride with her now-husband Dave. But typical quickly turned to tragic when Nelson was struck by a vehicle in a hit-and-run accident. The side mirror struck her tailbone, then ripped through the left side of her body, breaking bones and ribs and tearing up other vital tissues up and down her left side. Her head hit the pavement, destroying her helmet and causing a brain bleed and a series of strokes over the next several days in the hospital. 

“I remember waking up and I couldn’t move the left side of my body at all — could not even open my left eyelid or smile,” Nelson says. “I have absolutely no memory of that day, that week or most of that year. I don’t even remember the neurologist saying that I might never walk again.”

It’s Like Riding a Bike

Left with partial paralysis, double vision from a dead optical nerve and a cognitive brain injury, Nelson endured countless hours of therapy for speech, movement and function and spent several hours each day working to reverse her left-side paralysis and improve her strength. But what she believes really made a huge difference in her recovery was Dave: After Nelson was discharged, Dave bought a tandem bicycle and hoisted her on the back. He attached her feet to the pedals and together they began tooling around town. “I really think this helped my body move again,” she explains. “The blood flow helped my brain, and the movement helped the muscle memory.”


Racing Toward the Future

Though cycling with Dave was therapeutic, the accident left Nelson with post-traumatic stress disorder and made competitive cycling more stressful than enjoyable. So she took up running. Of course, she didn’t go right from a wheelchair to racing 5Ks overnight. “I had to learn to walk again and, trust me, that process is emotionally painful and full of heartbreak,” she says. But she persevered and in three years’ time had worked up to running 20 to 30 miles per week. Five years after that, she was logging 50 to 70 miles per week. “Now I compete in trail and ultramarathons. I recently qualified for the Boston Marathon at the Napa Valley Marathon with time to spare,” she says.

These days, Nelson’s coach sends her a personalized training routine each month with daily running miles, cross-training and strength routines — and when she can’t do an exercise because of her disability, he creates a safe and effective alternative.

Though it’s been a long road, Nelson is positive about her future outlook. “Many [doctors] have told me that I am only here today because I was extremely fit and healthy before the accident,” she says. “I will never be the person I was before the accident, but that doesn’t mean I should give up. I’ve created new dreams with new goals and am proof that you can do almost anything if you set your mind to it.”

Ashley’s Power Day Workout

Nelson’s current workout programming is tailored around running, strength and speed. “The goal with this power day is to use a heavier load to promote greater muscle recruitment,” she says.


Exercise Reps/Time
Cat/Cow 5
Runner’s Lunge and Twist 3 (each side)
Hamstring Stretch 30 seconds (each side)
Bird Dog 30 seconds (each side)
Gluten Bridge 30 seconds

Movement Prep

Choose a light weight and do this couplet once through.

Exercise Reps
Deadlifts 10
Squats 10

Power-Set Workout

Choose a heavy weight and go through this routine four times. Rest 60 seconds between moves and two minutes between rounds. If desired, perform a core exercise like dead bugs, mountain climbers, bird dogs or planks instead of taking the rest. 

Exercise Reps
Deadlifts 5
Step-Ups  3 (each leg)
Squats 5
Box Jumps 5

Ashley’s Must-Have Supplements from NOW Foods

BCAA Big 6. “The taurine gives me the endurance I need for lifting and aids in my post workout recovery.”

Egg-White Protein Powder. “I love to sneak this into my kids’ pancakes. And for myself, I mix it with almond butter and Greek yogurt for a yummy dip for apples or to mix with blueberries.”

Trending on Oxygen Mag