This Man Spent 99 Days Rolling His Wheelchair From Santa Monica To New York

Gabriel Cordell on his cross-country wheelchair journey. (Courtesy of Array Films)

By Marialexa Kavanaugh with Monica Bushman and John Horn

Gabriel Cordell, star of the new Netflix documentary Roll With Me, grew up with the not-so-uncommon dream of making it on the big screen. His dreams went beyond just acting — he wanted to make a dent in the world.

"When I was 18 years old I had a promise: that by the time I turned 45 I would accomplish something extraordinary in my life," Cordell told KPCC's The Frame. "I didn't know what that meant, what it was going to be."

In 1992, Cordell's life changed. While en route to his first real audition, his car was T-boned, ejecting him into a light post. It shattered his spine, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down ever since.

"Being in a wheelchair was definitely not part of the equation," he said.

While he was still able to find some work in the years since, Hollywood's lack of opportunities for the disabled made it difficult to thrive professionally. Over time, Cordell's life became consumed with drug addiction, derailing his childhood dreams.

At the age of 42, Cordell finally got sober. He realized that his dreams of doing something big weren't lost with his ability to walk. In this lightbulb moment, he discovered a new goal: to wheel his old-school, manual wheelchair across the entirety of the United States, starting at the Santa Monica Pier and ending in West Hempstead, New York.

"It took me 25 years to figure it out," Cordell said. "I had a lot of reasons — redemption, my family, inspiring people."

ASSEMBLING A TEAM

The trip took approximately three months. It was documented by filmmaker Lisa France, who'd given up on her own filmmaking career until hearing this story. With a scraped-together budget, both France and Cordell were pushed to recruit a crew that would be willing to work for free.

"I love these guys with all my heart and I would do anything for them," Cordell said. "But you got to understand, by the time I decided that I wanted to roll, it was about bodies — it wasn't about qualifications. And so whoever was willing to go across the United States at the pace of sleep, with no pay, you were welcome."

That crew included his own troubled nephew.

"I made it my mission to kind of be his mentor, because his father was out of the picture," Cordell said. "From the age of 13, he started gang-banging, heroin, every drug you could possibly think of. All of his life, he's been high. I needed to bring him."

His nephew's mother was struggling with him.

"My sister called me and said, 'You need to do something with him, because I am done.' This was right before I was leaving. So I said, 'I'll bring him on the road.'"

GETTING PAST THE OBSTACLES

Despite its successful, victorious ending, the journey was filled with challenges. One of the trickiest: that Cordell was traveling on one of the least advanced, most rudimentary wheelchairs available. This detail was important to him.

"Those modified wheelchairs are really expensive," Cordell said. "I've never owned one, and most people don't own one. I wanted people to look at me and recognize themselves and say, 'Oh, he could do it in that — I have no excuse.'"

Critical to the completion of the movie and journey was everyone's refusal to forget the overall goal.

"That was to get to New York," Cordell said. "We kept rallying each other, we had to rally each other. And so that's what I'm proud of. Not one punch was thrown. Six grown men in a sardine can, that's pretty impressive."

Gabriel Cordell pushes his wheelchair up Highway 47 (Courtesy of Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Directing the film was no easy feat, and Cordell gave France his full blessing to bow out of the project if she needed to.

"And I remember one time you said to me, 'Lisa, don't worry, we don't have to finish it, it's okay if you want to quit, I understand.'" France said. "And it's funny that he said that to me, and yet I couldn't, of course I couldn't, because I think that our film has as many credits as 'Titanic.'"

From financiers to sideline cheerleaders, the number of people that helped in supporting Cordell's journey is in the thousands. One moment that sat with Cordell was about 2,800 miles deep, towards the end of Pennsylvania, when around 200 camp kids greeted him with applause and encouragement.

"It gave me a boost that I so desperately needed, because I was toast," Cordell said. "That carried me all the way through. Those are the little blessings we get along the way. It's the refueling of the soul, refueling of the heart — the people that we met every day is what kept me going. And my lovely, dysfunctional crew, that I love with all of my heart."

Cordell shares his story as a motivational speaker. You can watch his journey in Roll With Me on Netflix.

Editor's note: A version of this story also ran on the Frame. You can listen to that here.


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