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Moxy Woman- December 2010- Maria Riquet

Champion Body Builder, Massage Therapist, Former Competitive Cyclist & Survivor

St. Petersburg, FL



“Focus on your goals with determination and courage.  The power of your mind and your positive thoughts will take you
where you want to be.  Never stop believing in yourself and never give up, no matter what the odds.” 
 ~Maria Riquet         


The Power of Transformation
By Janan Talafer

“Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life.” Wayne Dyer

Watching Maria Riquet work out at the gym is an unbelievable sight. Just 5 ft. 1 inch tall and 116 pounds, this 58-year body builder has the toned physique of someone decades younger, with abs of steel, well-defined arms and the confidence of an Olympic athlete.  Maria can chest press her body weight, leg press 315 pounds, do 50 pull ups and 100 abdominal crunches.  “I want to be a beast,” she likes to joke in her thick Brazilian accent. 

It’s not only Maria’s commitment to physical fitness that impresses everyone she meets.  It’s also her relentless drive and focus – qualities that helped her overcome grueling physical and emotional hardship to transform her life.  

A life-long athlete who won the 1998 gold medal for cycling in the Florida State Championships, Maria’s life was turned upside down by a near-fatal bike accident.  At the hospital trauma center, doctors never expected her to make it through the first night. Later, they told her she might never walk normally again.  “No, I refuse to have my body not functional,” she told them.

Her injuries were extensive: a concussion, a punctured lung, broken ribs, both arms broken, fractured vertebrae in her back, severe road rash on her face and a left leg so badly shattered that every bone in it was broken.  In total, she had 13 broken bones.

“When the doctors told me what I was facing, I realized that I would need to be 100 percent focused to get my life back on track and not be dependent on anyone,” says Maria.  “Through the perseverance and fierce determination that I learned from my parents, and the respect that I have for myself, I found the courage to overcome every obstacle in my way.” 

Maria’s story of triumph over adversity begins on July 6, 2003, when she and friends from the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club and the St. Pete Mad Dog Triathlon Club met for their usual Sunday ride, a 45-mile loop from St. Petersburg to Clearwater and back.  This was a serious group of elite cyclists and triathletes who pushed themselves hard.

By 8:30 a.m., the group started out at a leisurely pace, riding two abreast, not yet hitting their stride.  As they climbed a slight incline in the road, a car on the opposite side of the road suddenly crossed the double yellow line and veered into their path at full speed. 

Within seconds, the cyclists began falling one by one like dominoes as the car plowed into them.  Maria was thrown into the air, vaulted over the hood of the car and landed head first on the pavement. 

No one was killed, but 13 people needed immediate, emergency care. Maria was the most critical. As several ambulances and two Bayflite medical helicopters converged on the scene, a cyclist ran to one of the medical personnel, directing him to where Maria lay.  Her blood pressure was alarmingly low. 

At the hospital trauma center, X-rays and a CAT Scan revealed an astonishing amount of injuries.  ‘Maria was practically incoherent, and kept mumbling over and over, ‘Just let me go,’ “said St. Petersburg Firefighter Scott Cromwell, one of her friends from the bike club. “I told her, ‘Listen here, you are one tough, stubborn Brazilian and giving up is not an option.  There is no way you are going anywhere. You have too much to live for. “

It was nine days before Maria regained consciousness.  As she opened her eyes and realized she couldn’t raise her head or move her body, it began to dawn on her where she was and what had happened.  She felt trapped and remembers wanting to scream, but instead, she began to cry.

“I kept thinking, why did God allow this tragedy to happen to me,” says Maria.  “I felt so despondent and completely without hope.  I was disappointed that I had not died because at least then I would be at peace.”

She also felt robbed after all the work she had put into her physical fitness.  “I took such pride in being an athlete,” says Maria.  “I was so upset because it just didn’t seem fair that my body was so broken.” 

The biggest battle she faced was the pain.  It was overwhelming and constant.  “It was like a force to be dealt with,” she says.  Medication to sedate her and help manage the discomfort had the opposite effect.  “I spent minute after minute looking at the clock,” said Maria.  “I couldn’t sleep.  My life sometimes felt like a living hell.”

She also struggled to confront her anger over the lack of remorse shown by the driver of the car.  Months later in court he would say that he had been trying to pass another car and became disoriented. “He never apologized for what he did and even seemed to blame us for the accident,” says Maria. “It was difficult, but I knew I had to forgive him.  Hateful thoughts would only slow my recovery.  Every day I would pray to God for strength and courage.”

Lying there in the hospital with casts on both arms and her left leg in traction, Maria was completely immobile and utterly dependent.  “I couldn’t do anything, not even get up to shower or feed myself,” says Maria.  “I had to force myself to be patient.  All I could do was think and wonder about the future.”   

As a divorce, she worried about how she would support herself financially if she were permanently disabled. Even worse, she did not want to think about the burden it would place on her four young sons: Kyle, then 18; twins Mark and Andre, 19; and Ryan, 21, a U.S. Marine who had just completed a tour of duty in Iraq.  Each time they came to the hospital to visit, she could see the concern and fear on their faces.  “I kept thinking they are too young to have to take care of me like this,” said Maria. She tried as best she could to hide her feelings from them.

Fortunately, her friends were her saving grace.  A steady stream of visitors, neighbors, friends and her employer came by to offer encouragement.  “Everyone knew my door was always open at any time of the day and evening. I did not want to be alone,” says Maria.  “I even slept with the phone on my stomach so if it rang I could wake up in time to answer it.”

She also turned to happy childhood memories to boost her spirits.  Growing up in Brazil, Maria had lived a privileged life filled with parties, friends, swimming at the beach, tennis and ballet lessons.  The family was well off financially – her father a was banking executive – and they lived in a large home with servants. She was the youngest child and her parents had doted on her. Her high school graduation gift had been a 45-day grand tour of Europe.  During college, she had worked in the Protocol Office for the government in Fortaleza.

Her strong faith was a comfort, too, and she frequently dreamt of two towering white figures.  “I call them my angels,” says Maria.  “I saw them when I was in the hospital trauma center and also when my mother died.  I knew they were there to protect and support me.”

Against all odds, within a few weeks, her doctors felt she was ready to be transferred to the hospital rehab center to begin a full regimen of physical, occupational, speech and cognitive therapy. 

But it wasn’t nearly as easy as she had imagined. “My mind was confused from all of the medication I was taking,” says Maria.  “The first time the therapist came to get me I was so excited. I thought I could just jump on the bike and be back to where I was before.  It came as a shock when the reality of everything hit.”

Just to move to a standing position was an unbelievable ordeal.  The therapist would wrap a belt around her waist, lift her out of the wheelchair, and help move her to the parallel bars.  At first she could only practice standing and regaining her balance. Gradually, she began walking a few steps.  Even that was a challenge that took enormous persistence and concentration.  “Five little steps felt like five miles,” said Maria.  “It was exhausting and painful.  Sometimes I would be too tired to eat lunch after the workout.”  

Karen Williams, M.D., the former director of the Bayfront Rehabilitation Center, has seen a lot of patients in her 22 years as a physiatrist, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist.  But Maria stands out.

“Maria’s motivation was amazing,” says Dr. Williams.  “The degree of injury she experienced could have been overwhelming to many people, but Maria would not let it get her down.  She never let the pain or the anxiety control her.  She was driven to overcome it.”

A turning point came when the therapist told her bluntly that she had to let go of the past and how physically fit she had been before the accident.  “That was really hard to hear,” says Maria, “but it was the best thing he could have said to me.  I had to accept my life just as it was in order to move forward.” 

Finally in early September, just 13 weeks after her near fatal accident, Maria was ready to go home.  But she was far from independent.   “I could walk with a walker, but to get from the bed to the bathroom and back took forever,” says Maria.  “I was also on pain pills around the clock.” 

The hospital arranged for her son Ryan to be transferred from North Caroilna to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa so he could move in and take care of her.  “Every morning he would carry me down stairs, place me on the couch and then go to work,” says Maria. 

But at home alone, she felt isolated, fearful and depressed.  Terrible muscle spasms wracked her body as the nerves began to heal and regenerate.  “It was really a terrible ordeal,” says Maria.  “Sometimes my life just felt like a nightmare.”

Yet like every other step in her journey to recovery, Maria began to make progress one day at a time.  As her strength returned and she became more mobile, she decided it was time to start weaning herself off all pain medications and sleeping pills.  Her goal was to return to work by January, 2004.  And she did.  Just six months after the accident, she went back to work part-time as a massage therapist at a local salon. 

The first few weeks back on the job were exhausting, she says, but her clients’ surprise at seeing her back at work so quickly bolstered her confidence and lifted her spirits.  She also began exercising at a local gym.  Her outpatient therapy visits had come to an end, yet she needed to continue exercising to build her strength.  “I wasn’t flexible anymore,” says Maria.  “My muscles had atrophied and my posture was terrible.  My shoulders were so rounded and my body was crooked.”

She hired a personal trainer at the gym and with his help, began a structured program that combined fitness, a high-protein diet and rest.  Slowly, she began to make progress toward improving her posture and her stamina.  In July, 12 months after the accident, she surprised everyone and joined the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club for a one-year anniversary ride. “It was a great triumph after everything I had been through,” says Maria.   

But physically, it was still difficult for her, and her lower left leg, which had been slow to heal, started to give her more trouble.  After weeks of test and doctor visits, Maria was diagnosed with osteomyelitis, a serious chronic infection of the bone.  The severity of the infection meant yet another major surgery.  In the hospital, a surgeon cleaned the bone of infection and removed the five plates that had been implanted to repair the fractures.  Then a plastic surgeon closed the gaping wound with a skin graft.  

“Maria went through hell and had more infections and more surgeries than you can imagine,” says a cycling friend.  “She is one tough lady.”

Weeks later, when she was finally back on her feet again, Maria realized her once all-consuming passion for bicycling just wasn’t the same any more.  “It was hard to go on a long ride,” she says.  Her leg would start to ache and she could no longer keep up competitively with the guys.  She was also anxious about being on the road with cars.

One day she stopped at a local coffee shop with friends and decided to pick up a body building magazine.  She’d always been intrigued with the photos of body builders and had enjoyed watching competitions on TV.  Suddenly, everything began to click.  If she gave up cycling, she could focus on body building.

With the help of her personal trainer at the gym, Maria began building her upper body and her legs.  She increased her cardiovascular workout on the machines to gain stamina and endurance.  As her body grew stronger and her muscles took on definition, she became stronger mentally and emotionally.

“I began to feel that every day was a treasured gift,” says Maria.  “I still had a goal in mind, but I didn’t worry about the future.”

In 2005, her coach took her to the annual NPC Hurricane Bay Bodybuilding and Figure Championship at a high school in Tampa.  “It was thrilling,” she recalled.  She knew then she wanted to compete the following year. It would be the ultimate test of her recovery.

With the same drive she had shown in the hospital, Maria focused all of her attention on getting her body ready for the competition.  Her coach introduced her to a body-builder at another gym, and the two embarked on an impressive preparation course, combining exercise, a high protein diet, vitamins and nutritional supplements to help Maria “bulk” up for the event.

 Months went by as she trained for the competition.  And as the event drew closer, she spent time getting “bronzed” in a tanning bed and buying the tiny bikini bathing suit she would need to wear on stage.

By the fall of 2006, she was ready.  That evening, as she stepped up on stage to show off her muscular physique, the audience went wild.  A story in the competition program had described her accident and her amazing recovery.  There was even a photo from her hospital bed.  It was a remarkable feat for a woman who couldn’t walk just three years earlier.  She placed fourth out of about a half dozen contestants in her age category – women over 50.  But more importantly, the competition signaled her transformation from accident victim to winner. 

“I had believed in myself and I had worked so hard,” says Maria.  “Competing helped me feel attractive and beautiful again.  That night I was on the top of the world with such a sense of accomplishment. I knew that God had given me a second chance.”

After the event, Maria went to pay for the competition pictures she had ordered, but the photographer tore up her receipt.  “Just take the photos, you deserve them,” she said.

The thrill of the competition made Maria only want more.   As if she were training for a marathon, she stepped her exercise, added more weights and began eating a strict diet of nothing but chicken, brown rice, vegetables and protein shakes.  Her vigilance and hard work paid off.  The following year, in the fall of 2007, she came in first at the annual Tampa NPC Hurricane Bay Bodybuilding and Figure Championship.  The trophy she took home that night was proof that she had come a long way.  “I felt strong, athletic and powerful,” says Maria. 

Today, Maria continues to train, but she’s taken a break from the level of commitment required to compete.  For now, she says, she is counting her blessings and feeling grateful to be alive. “I have learned so many lessons on this journey to healing,” says Maria.  “I know that if I can do it, so can others.”

The most important step, she says, is to never stop believing in yourself or trusting God.  “Banish negative thoughts and see yourself as healthy and normal again,” says Maria.  “Keep on going no matter what.  That is what life is all about.”  

Check out the video below for an example of a day in the life of a bodybuilder



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