13-year-old surprised with custom sports wheelchair after spinal cord injury

PHOTO: Megan Blunk, a 2016 USA Paralympian, presents a custom wheelchair to 13-year-old Olivia Cucuru at the Angel City Games in Los Angeles in June 2019.PlayJoe Kusumoto for The Hartford
WATCH Girl surprised with wheelchair after spinal cord injury at age 3

Olivia Curcuru, 13, who loves to play wheelchair basketball, got the surprise of a lifetime: her very own custom adaptive sports wheelchair. “It feels a little bit unreal,” Olivia said about finally getting a chair that fits her after years of trying to play basketball in borrowed ones.

Paralympian gold medalist Megan Blunk surprised Olivia, who traveled to Los Angles from Scottsdale, Arizona, along with two other young athletes with their very own custom adaptive sports wheelchairs at the 2019 Angel City Games, an adaptive sports festival celebrating athletes with disabilities. The gift was made possible thanks to a donation from The Hartford’s Ability Equipped program.

In 2009, at age three, Olivia suffered a spinal cord injury after being hit by a truck while riding her tricycle. Since then, she's been in a wheelchair, but has never let it slow her down.

PHOTO: Olivia Curcuru poses for a photo at age 4. Courtesy Carolyn Curcuru
Olivia Curcuru poses for a photo at age 4.

“My mom would tell me when I was little I would fly down the hospital hallways just zooming to my heart’s delight," Olivia told "Good Morning America," laughing. "She said the only time I cried was when I got blisters on my thumbs because I was rolling way too fast."

Olivia’s mother, Carolyn Curcuru, told "GMA" that Olivia’s love for sports came naturally, whether it was archery, swimming, dancing or basketball. In rehab, Olivia’s team of doctors suggested she focus on what she could do instead of what she couldn't, "and we just took that to heart," Curcuru said.

At age four, Olivia started her first sport, archery, which eventually led her to basketball.

PHOTO: Olivia Curcuru competes at archery during the Angel City Games in Arizona, in June 2019. Courtesy Carolyn Curcuru
Olivia Curcuru competes at archery during the Angel City Games in Arizona, in June 2019.

The first time she played wheelchair basketball was with Arizona Disabled Sports, a Paralympic sports club. However, the family had to drive two hours each way on a school night just for Olivia to participate. Carolyn Curcuru said they also found it difficult to find education systems that could accommodate Olivia's physical and educational needs.

Being the only child at her middle school of over 900 students who uses a wheelchair, Olivia has also struggled with balancing time between classes, medical appointments and making friends. But that is why her sports commitment was well worth it, said Curcuru, for Olivia to be able to compete and be part of a community.

From the little girl being forced to watch from the sidelines, Olivia is now a player on Ability 360's wheelchair basketball team, and many of her teammates were in attendance at the Angel City Games. Ability 360 is an organization that offers programs to help empower people with disabilities.

Olivia told "GMA" she feels freedom on the court, and that she's looking forward to traveling with her teammates for tournaments soon.

Sports wheelchairs average about $2,500 per chair, and depending on added features can cost over $5,000, according to The Hartford. For years, Olivia used the chairs provided by different facilities, which are often too big.

“Not to say she didn’t play well, but you can tell she was uncomfortable,” her mother said.

Curcuru called the custom wheelchair a literal “game changer."

PHOTO: Olivia Curcuru presented with custom wheelchair at Angel City Games, 2019. Joe Kusumoto for The Hartford
Olivia Curcuru presented with custom wheelchair at Angel City Games, 2019.

Paralympics Gold Medalist Megan Blunk explained that a wheelchair that doesn't fit properly is "like wearing size 12 tennis shoes when you wear a size 7.” With a properly-fitted chair, a player can be much more agile, she said.

“A lot of times kids are in chairs that don't fit them, they’ll try dribbling and [the ball] will bounce off their wheel and everyone will say, ‘Yay, at least you’re out there.' It’s so frustrating for me to see this because I know it’s the chair, it’s not them,” Blunk added.

Blunk, who suffered a spinal cord injury herself in 2008, said wheelchair basketball was the thing that brought purpose back to her life. She wants to dispel any misconception that being in a wheelchair means you deserve pity or are destined to have a sad life.

"I’m a pioneer, my role is to push through this and not give up so I can make [things] better for the next generation," Blunk said. "It’s a beautiful thing to be able to do.”

New generations like Olivia's, have benefited from role models like Blunk and Ali Stroker, the first wheelchair user to win a Tony Award, accomplishing feats others deemed impossible for people with disabilities.

PHOTO: Olivia Curcuru poses for a photo with Tony Award winning actress Ali Stroker. Courtesy Carolyn Curcuru
Olivia Curcuru poses for a photo with Tony Award winning actress Ali Stroker.

“If you feel like you can’t do a certain thing, but then you see other people do it then you know you can do it too,” Olivia said.