Diving Into the Life of Cliff Devries: Part One
by Cayla Keiser | published Jan. 26th, 2019
RIT knows Cliff Devries as a beloved diving coach, a teller of poolside stories and a genuine, humble man. But few know the incredible story of trial and healing behind his success.
Devries wasn’t always paralyzed on the right side of his body and he didn’t always aspire to become a diving coach. However, life took him on a trip he never planned to embark on.
The First Chapter
Growing up, Devries’ five older siblings always told him that he should become the president since he was the only one born in the United States. But early on, he figured out that he didn’t want to dabble in politics.
It wasn’t until his freshman year at Rush-Henrietta Senior High School that Devries began diving.
Phil Baretela, RIT’s head swimming and diving coach and friend of Devries for over 30 years, said the two of them were "inseparable.” After swimming and diving meets, Baretela would go to the Devries’ home to celebrate their wins.
“He was an extremely diligent trainer and worker and fierce competitor, but never to the detriment of somebody else,” Baretela said. “He wanted to perfect his craft, his sport and be the best he could.”
After high school, Devries went to the University of Kentucky on a diving scholarship, but he was not there long.
“I started taking courses, but then my shoulder started getting really weak and I wasn’t able to do the diving skills anymore,” Devries said.
Devries lost his scholarship and moved back home with little idea of where to go next. His sister was living in Utah, so after some consideration, he moved out to live with her.
A Mormon Mission
For a year, Devries resided out west. He initially went to Utah to work and save money for college, but as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Devries was around many people who encouraged him to go on his mission — the spreading and teaching of one's faith.
Devries went to Argentina to teach people about Christ. While there, he developed a love for Argentinians and gained a wealth of knowledge and faith.
“If you talk to anyone who has done a mission for any length of time, I’m sure they’ll say the same thing. It’s life-changing and extraordinarily meaningful,” Devries said. “It gives you a deeper understanding of yourself, helping other people and being selfless.”
What Devries gained on his mission translated to how he lived his life, as Baretela has always seen a kindhearted spirit in Devries.
“He’s always been genuine. He’s always had an appreciation of people and their situations and backgrounds. He was always the outgoing one, the friendly one — always nice to everyone,” he said.
A Life-Changing Moment
Throughout all the hurdles Devries faced, Baretela noted that Devries remained himself through it all — even when he returned from his mission to find out that he had cancer in his spinal cord.
Devries had gone to have what he thought was a simple pinched nerve checked out through an MRI. He joked around before heading in for the scan, not expecting this to be anything serious. But partway through the scan, Devries asked the MRI technicians how things were looking.
“They all looked totally scared. I thought, ‘This must be really bad. This isn’t just a pinched nerve,’” Devries said.
In February of 1995, Devries’ parents sat him down to share the life-changing news.
“They said, ‘Cliff, you’re going to die. You’ve got a large tumor in your spinal cord,’” he recalled. “It took the breath out of me ... All these plans of a future, a family — everything was wiped away. It was gut-wrenching.”
“They said, ‘Cliff, you’re going to die.'"
The size of a thumb on one end and a pinky at the other, the six-inch tumor that could have taken Devries’ life, sat from the top of his neck to the middle of his shoulder blades. He needed surgery, and he needed it quickly.
The Stings of Surgery
Devries traveled to New York City for the 13 hour surgery where doctors removed 90 percent of the tumor, confident the rest wouldn’t grow. But the surgery didn’t happen without complications.
Baretela remembers receiving a call from Devries’ mom after the operation.
“I could hear it in her voice that it didn’t go as it was supposed to,” he said.
Devries explained, “They lost all the equipment. They don’t know whether I died or whether it was equipment failure, but for a short time they didn’t have any life signs on me."
After the surgery, Devries remained in the ICU. To ensure stability, medical staff kept him breathing through a ventilator for a few days.
“That was probably the most painful and horrible part of the whole thing ... just about every breath it felt like there were spikes in my lungs,” Devries said. “The best feeling of my life was having that thing come out.”
Three weeks after the surgery, Devries transferred to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester with practically no motor function. He was completely paralyzed from the neck down.
One Step at a Time
At first, there wasn’t much that Devries could do in physical therapy, but near the end of the month his motion improved slightly. Once a day, every day, therapists came to work with him.
“They would have me push my legs into their hands while I was laying down. I could slowly get a little bit of extension with my legs, but basically they were just moving my body so it wouldn’t stiffen up and lock up,” Devries said with powerful emotion.
Slowly, Devries’ ability to stay in a vertical position improved. He worked on standing, but needed copious support from the therapists.
“One of those sessions would wipe me out for the rest of the day,” Devries said.
Each day followed the same routine for two months. At the end of March when Devries went home, a physical therapist visited twice a week, but still Devries saw minimal improvement.
“There were times where, yeah, I wanted to die,” he said.
“There were times where, yeah, I wanted to die”
Seeing people in wheelchairs with successful lives, though, encouraged Devries to keep going.
“Just knowing that there was something after paralysis was extremely helpful,” Devries said. “I wanted to do more with my life than just sit around and do nothing.”
He continued, “When I really started to see progress was when they took me off of the medications, off the painkillers, the antidepressants, the blood thinners — all that stuff ... My muscles started feeling better; I started feeling better.”
Baretela recounted a funny story from Devries’ recovery period. Devries was standing in Baretela’s driveway when Baretela’s large black lab mix ran towards Devries. The dog jumped on him, but he simply brushed it off.
“[Devries] shouted, ‘Aha see! I’m gonna tell my physical therapist I’m all done. I didn’t get knocked over by a 90-pound dog — I’m done,’” Baretela said.
As time went on, Devries attempted to walk little by little, and slowly made progress.
After six months, Devries was able to stand up by himself. After one year, he was able to take a few steps. After two years of physical therapy and hard work, Devries could walk with a cane. He would walk from his house to the sidewalk, then to the end of the street, then farther and farther each day. Now, he walks close to a mile per day.
Making the Most
Devries had immense support of his friends and family throughout everything. Through the countless hours and years of physical therapy Devries endured, Baretela never saw him show signs of a struggle.
“He never played the 'oh look what happened to me, I’m so unfortunate’ card,” Baretela said. “Even though there is a distinct moment in time where his life changed, it hasn’t affected his character.”
"Even though there is a distinct moment in time where his life changed, it hasn’t affected his character.”
His life didn’t turn out exactly as he planned, but Devries loves his life as a husband, a father and a coach to many budding divers.
“Through all the many things that [have] gone wrong, so many things have gone right. Finding a surgeon who can do that [surgery], to having a very supportive family, to finding my amazingly beautiful wife and being able to raise a gorgeous little girl — I’m just extraordinarily blessed,” he said.
But not everyone sees past his physical disability to the resilient man beneath. Sometimes, people are quick to judge those who look or move differently as less capable than themselves.
Over the years, Devries has sometimes had to deal with the stigmas associated with walking differently than others.
“When you approach people with disabilities and handicaps, I would say have an open mind and don’t immediately say, ‘Alright, this is their mental capacity,’ right off the bat,” Devries said. “Although that’s very difficult. It’s difficult for me, too. I see somebody and I immediately make a judgment about where they stand.”
Devries’ life hasn’t been without trial, but perseverance and determination have carried him through it all.
“If you can, just work through those [moments] and try to keep that little sliver of hope alive," Devries said. "Then you can make something of your life — even if it’s maybe not the exact life that you wanted to have."