An inspiring Unser is looking for help to share her empowering passion for scuba diving.
Cody Unser, the paralyzed daughter of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Harding Racing driving coach Al Unser Jr., has entered her Cody Unser First Step Foundation in the Newman’s Own Foundation $500,000 Holiday Challenge competition, which will present 10 cash awards to worthy causes based on fund-raising efforts.
Unser’s non-profit foundation (http://www.codysfirststep.org/) takes paralyzed people of all ages on scuba diving adventures. She became paralyzed at the age of 12 after being diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis. After a helpful nudge of her wheelchair from big brother Al Unser III, she eventually turned to scuba diving as a liberating activity that she loves introducing to others.
“It definitely saved my life,” Cody Unser said. “That’s why I sort of embraced it and really wanted to help other people realize what they can do in life even though they might have a disability. It just really shows what you’re capable of. It allows you to do other things in life.”
All proceeds from her drive will be used for the foundation’s adaptive scuba program. To donate, click this link: https://www.crowdrise.com/o/en/campaign/thecodyunserfirststepfoundation.
“The challenge actually ends on my birthday,” she said. “Jan. 3 is my 31st birthday, so people can donate $31.
“It is a competition and I have a competitive nature in my blood. We’ve been trying to reach out to anybody and everybody to donate. I’d love for the racing community to help out.”
Newman’s Own will award the organization that raises the most money with $150,000. Second place earns $50,000, third place $30,000, fourth place $25,000 and fifth place $15,000. The awards extend to $2,500 for 10th place.
Newman’s Own Foundation was founded by the late actor Paul Newman to continue his philanthropic legacy and help make the world a better place. The foundation turns all net profits and royalties from the sale of Newman’s Own food and beverage products into charitable donations.
As a young boy, Al Unser III was honored to meet Newman, a passionate racer and longtime Indy car team co-owner.
“Paul was such a great guy, especially in racing,” Al said.
Cody, Al and their mother, Shelley, have enjoyed taking destination scuba diving trips to tropical locations such as the Bahamas, Cayman Islands and South Florida.
“The goal is to get into the ocean,” Cody said. “Everybody wants to be certified and put that on their resume of accomplishments. We’re trying our best to do what we can and really push adaptive sports. I grew up in auto racing, but not everybody can be a race car driver. Scuba diving is the best thing on the planet.
“Once you’re under water, everything goes silent and all you can hear is your breathing. The whole world goes quiet. The ocean is a really beautiful place that we should all take care of. There’s so much under water that we don’t really see. There’s different colors we don’t see on land. It provides you with such a different perspective.”
Cody credits Al III “as my rock” for coaxing her to explore the possibilities. It started with big brother teaching sister how to do wheelies in a wheelchair.
“Going back to when Cody first got sick, when I was teaching her wheelies, she was in rehab in Arizona basically learning how to live paralyzed,” Al said. “It was depressing for her. She had to learn all of these extra things to do the simplest of tasks. I just wanted to make life fun again. You can still do stuff. There was an extra wheelchair there that I jumped in and showed her how to do wheelies. Life goes on. You can still do some of the same things, you just have to do them a little differently.
“It took a little while to find her true passion. It’s something she wanted to share with everybody. That all kind of started at the pool. She didn’t think she could swim still. No, you can swim. I tied my legs together. ‘See, I can swim.’ Then I tossed her in. That became one of our rituals for our scuba adventures. It would begin with me grabbing her and jumping into the ocean.”
Being underwater in the ocean and seeing another world is incredibly invigorating for Cody, who is paralyzed from the chest down.
“When Cody first dove out in the ocean, she’s leaving her wheelchair on the boat,” Al said. “Get out of the chair and be on an even playing field with everybody. In diving, you’re not trying to go somewhere fast. You’re looking at everything. You’re going 60 feet down, where the good coral is, and looking at the fish and everything. She’s just like everybody else down there. It’s an adrenaline rush. You come up and you’re like, ‘Did you see that eel?! Did you see that lobster?! Did you see those fish pecking my face because we were in their area?!’
“She’s super pumped, and super pumped to go back down again. She wants to do it even more because it’s such a freedom for her. And she wants to be able to share that with other people who are similarly affected as she is.”
For someone who grew up in a famous racing family, Cody admits her life adjustment was a challenge.
“Once I became paralyzed, life stood very still, whereas before it was very fast and always moving,” she said. “Al basically put an engine on my wheelchair and an engine on my life. It gave me something to look forward to. Scuba diving was that sport.”
As inspiring as Cody has become in her daily life, Al III is most proud of her sister wanting to share scuba diving with others.
“Her disease is rare and the more people know about the disease, the more other people affected by the disease are better treated and better diagnosed,” he said. “But I think Cody’s real passion with her foundation is the quality of life aspect and being able to share that with people and take them out (to dive).
“She didn’t act selfishly about it. She tries to take as many people as we can on these trips. We sometimes have to get more than one boat, and these are big scuba boats, 30 feet long. Watching all these people dive and see how they come up so happy, I can see why Cody wants to do these adventures.”
Cody can’t wait for the next adventure. And a boost from the Newman’s Own Challenge will allow her to share scuba diving with more people.
“I’m thriving. Life is definitely not over,” she said. “That’s what we do with the foundation. We let other people know you can still do things in life.
“Nothing should stop you from going for that checkered flag in the end. Reach for accomplishing something. That’s what scuba diving did for me. It let me know, ‘Cody, snap out of this. Just because you have half of a working body doesn’t mean you can’t fully accomplish things in life.’”