Top Inspiring Stories of 2011

Featured Article
on December 30, 2011

Still Standing. And Walking

When Austin Whitney was paralyzed after a drunk driving accident four years ago, he was immediately sentenced to life in a wheelchair. But in May, he achieved the unthinkable: he walked—yes, walked—across the stage to collect his diploma from UC Berkeley. He achieved the feat with the help of a mechanical, motorized exoskeleton created by Homayoon Kazerooni, a mechanical engineering professor, who named the device the Austin Exoskeleton after his guinea pig and collaborator.

Gone Swimming

In a record-setting attempt, Diana Nyad, 61, set out to swim from Cuba to Florida—100 miles—twice this year, both times having to call it quits before reaching her goal. In August, Nyad’s swim was brought to an end by shoulder pain, asthma and unbearable swimming conditions. Her second attempt in September ended after 40 hours of swimming and two Portuguese Man-of-War stings.

Women Make History in Kentucky

The 137th Kentucky Derby was a banner event for women. Rosie Napravnik, 23, was only the sixth female jockey ever to compete and finished higher than any woman in history, taking 9th place with horse Pants on Fire. And despite his masculine name, third-place finisher Mucho Macho Man owed much of his success to trainer Kathy Ritvo, making a career comeback after a heart transplant in 2008. Only one horse in Derby history with a female trainer has placed higher.

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Go, Go Gabby!

U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was released from a Texas rehabilitation hospital on June 15, just six months and seven days after being shot in the face on January 8, the target of a politically driven attack during a public meeting with constituents in an Arizona retail parking lot. She was shot in the left side of her brain, which controls speech and communication; today, nearly a year after the attack, she still receives therapy to help her improve her speech.

A New Face Unveiled

Three years after being brutally attacked by a friend’s chimp, Charla Nash revealed her new face on NBC’s “The Today Show” on November 21. After the chimp tore off Charla’s face and hands, she received a full face transplant during a 20-hour triple transplant surgery. She also received hand transplants, but the hands failed to thrive after the surgery, forcing doctors to remove them.

Centenarian Completes Marathon

The words “too late” aren’t in Fauja Singh’s vocabulary. The 100-year-old Indian man completed a Toronto marathon in October in about eight hours. It’s his eighth completed 26.2-mile race — he began running marathons at age 89. He credits his good health to a vegetarian diet, regular running and abstaining from alcohol and tobacco.

Dancing With the Stars Crowns a Hero

Before he danced to victory on the popular ABC show, many people hadn’t heard of All My Children actor J.R. Martinez. Now he’s an inspiration to millions. In 2003, at just 19 years old, the Army Humvee driver hit a landmine in Iraq. After 33 surgeries and 34 months of recovery, J.R. became a motivational speaker, reaching out to other disabled and disfigured vets. He quickly became a fan favorite on DWTS and was named one of People’s Sexiest Men Alive.