BERGENFIELD, N.J. — Lauren LaPorta of Bergenfield isn't even on the treadmill and she's already shaking.
The 28-year-old had just hoisted herself out of her motorized wheelchair and — ever so slowly — climbed the stairs up to the second level of Retro Fitness Hackensack.
All that was left for her to do was step onto the machine.
"I don't know what's wrong with me today," said LaPorta, several minutes into her second failed attempt at stepping onto the belt.
Her legs are quivering. Her back is hunched. She doesn't know if she's going to make it onto the treadmill this time.
While such a setback would seem minor considering how far she has come, LaPorta was still visibly frustrated. She became a quadriplegic 17 years ago after shattering her C5 spinal segment diving into her backyard pool.
LaPorta, who only began exercising five months ago, feels no self-pity but she also can be her own toughest critic. The thought of not walking on the treadmill wasn’t one she could easily accept, especially after all the progress she’s made since last summer.
That’s when she met Hawthorne’s Erica Little, who would become her trainer.
"She (Erica) was the best thing to happen to me in 2016," LaPorta said.
She gave me hope again. A newfound motivation.
The two women met at what was one of the lowest points LaPorta was experiencing since the accident. She had put on weight and longed for the days when she could run up and down the basketball court.
LaPorta also lost the ability to sweat in the accident because of the interruption in her nervous system.
She missed sweating and the work that accompanied it. But that all changed when she met Little at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck.
LaPorta was in physical therapy and Little was working as a PT aid.
Since training regularly, LaPorta says her life has taken on a new meaning.
"We took to each other immediately," LaPorta said. "I was telling my physical therapist that I wanted to get back into the gym and Little said she could help train me."
They started almost immediately and LaPorta was up and walking within weeks. Little insists she's been a "security blanket," and LaPorta has long underestimated her own strength.
LaPorta, however, said Little has been the difference.
Workouts are no longer something to dread. LaPorta doesn't mind catching a glimpse of her own reflection while she's under the barbell or that people stare. She’s proud of what she has been able to do.
"I really think I got hurt on purpose," said LaPorta, a guidance counslor at Bergenfield High School.
"I think I've been going through what I have been to help certain people.”
She says her injury has helped her find her purpose and hopes it inspires her students to do the same.
"I physically look imperfect," she said. "They know I'm going to get on their level and really listen to them. I can relate to them."
It’s similar to how Little feels when she's training LaPorta.
"I've learned that no matter how much you're struggling, you can always push through it," Little said. "I look at other people differently. I use Lauren as a tool for other people I train.
"I tell them that there are people out there who physically can't, but Lauren would run on a treadmill all day if she could.”
Last week, Little ran the extra quarter-mile for LaPorta.
While LaPorta doesn't count on ever being able to walk or run the way she used to, she feels blessed to be where she is now — enjoying the journey and inspiring others along the way.
"It's thrilling to have these workouts where I'm beaming with excitement because I was physically able to do something I never thought I'd be able to do again," she said.
"I've learned the true meaning of patience and you need to find new ways to motivate yourself. It's never going to be easy, but I have definitely learned how precious life is."