JUPITER, Fla. – Her floor-length veil blowing gently in the wind, the young bride glances at her beloved, dressed in a navy, three-piece suit, on this, their wedding day.
Then, she crouches over his wheelchair, slips her arms under his armpits and heaves.
Together, they stand in their first moment as husband and wife and embrace in a kiss. Then, she braces him from the side as he takes one wobbly step at a time, the unsteady — and extraordinary — effort captured in video of the ceremony in Jupiter, Florida. Some steps are harder than others as he swings his leg out front, focusing on each and every step.
Chris Norton, 26, was told nearly a decade ago that he might never walk again. Alone in his motionless body, he feared he’d never find love.
Then came Emily Summers.
After working for years to rebuild Chris’ strength, the couple on April 21 managed what even experts once thought impossible: They walked seven yards together — their arms intertwined as Emily bore much of Chris’ weight — down the aisle. The moment, first reported by People, was not just a personal triumph but also the latest chapter in a young couple’s mission to help and inspire others.
“When I walked with Emily at the wedding, it was such a special moment to share with her and to know that we did this together,” Chris told CNN. “It wasn’t just me, or her, but we did this together, and how powerful love can be and how far love can carry you in life and to know that we’ll have each other going forth until we pass.”
‘Not part of the plan’
Chris was an 18-year-old freshman when his life changed in an instant, just six weeks into college.
He was playing football for Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. On October 16, 2010, it was the third quarter in a game against Central College, and Chris was about to make a play he’d made many times before.
“I was running down to make a tackle at kickoff after we scored a touchdown, and I made a diving tackle at his legs,” Chris recalled. “I mistimed my jump just by a split second.
“Instead of getting my head in front of the legs of the ball carrier, my head collided right with his legs, and instantly, I lost all movement and feeling from my neck down.”
Chris lay in the grass, face down. He couldn’t push up. He didn’t know why.
“‘Chris, you have to get up,” he told himself, embarrassed that the game would stop.
Trainers ran onto the field. A helicopter arrived. Chris knew something was very wrong.
“I just closed my eyes and started praying and trying to block out what was happening around me,” he said. “I did not want to accept what was unfolding.”
At the hospital, Chris learned he’d suffered a spinal cord injury, fracturing his C3-C4 vertebrae. He needed surgery.
“I asked a surgeon, ‘Will I walk again?’ And he said, ‘Chris, I don’t know.'”
“At that point, I just lost it,” Chris said. “I was completely scared for my future because up until this point, as an 18-year-old, my life went according to plan. Everything was working out for me. For me, this was not part of the plan.”
‘Take care of today’
Each day in the hospital was like a fight, Chris said. Now a quadriplegic, he had lost much of the sensation below his neck.
Chris had suffered an incomplete spinal injury, and over time, some feeling returned to his body. Eventually, he’d be able to feel touch — but not temperature, pain or texture — he said.
At first, though, Chris couldn’t scratch his face. He couldn’t bathe. He couldn’t feed himself.
“I know everyone really just focuses on the walking part, but there was so much more that I couldn’t do,” he said.
But instead of focusing on what he couldn’t do, Chris tried to concentrate on tiny successes, like when he started feeding himself, or the day he first drove a motorized wheelchair.
“It’s about sending the correct signal through my muscles to communicate,” he explained. “The signal is getting messed up because of my injury. In training, they’re trying to work me through walking patterns, working through my hands and arms and putting me through the motions I’m used to doing so I can reconnect and get those signals strengthened and controlled.”
A major success came when he returned to school in August 2011.
“I just focus on that day,” he said, referring to every day. “‘What can I do today to get just a little bit better?’ and that’s been my motto. I just knew the future would take care of itself when I take care of today.”
‘She saw me for who I was’
Three years after his accident, Chris met Emily on a dating app. She was in college at Iowa State University, about three hours away.
“I was nervous because I didn’t know if I would find love,” Chris admitted. “I didn’t know if that was on the realm of that actually happening, for me to find my true love.”
The connection was instant.
“For someone to look past my injury and my physical challenges, and instantly I knew, Emily, she didn’t see that — she saw me for who I was, and I instantly had a connection with her.”
Emily felt a similar vibe.
“I just remember feeling a sense of peace that I knew that if I had Chris, that no matter what I went through in life, that I was going to be OK,” Emily Norton, formerly Summers, told CNN recently. “I could never have imagined this is where we would be right now, thinking back to when we first started dating, that this was the plan that God had for us.”
There was a lot that attracted Emily to Chris. He wanted to make a difference in other peoples’ lives, and so did she. He loved God, and so did she.
By then, Chris had started the Chris Norton Foundation, a nonprofit “dedicated to helping people with spinal cord and neuromuscular disabilities live their best lives,” according to his website. And, he was working as a motivational speaker.
Emily got involved in Chris’ recovery just a few weeks later. She went with him to physical therapy and learned how to help him stretch, exercise and practice walking.
“Now, she can walk me better than any physical therapist I’ve ever worked with,” Chris said with a smile. “She just knows how to get me around, move me around.”
Chris, who was still enrolled at Luther College, moved to Michigan so he could train at Barwis Methods, a program known for helping patients regain independence after a serious injury.
He had a big goal: to walk across the stage at his college graduation.
Chris trained four or five hours a day. Emily, now a college grad, moved to Michigan, too, to support him.
The night before his graduation in May 2015, Chris asked Emily to marry him. She said yes.
The next day, she hoisted him up out of his wheelchair and he made that walk. Chris’ arms shook quickly as Emily positioned him. She stood in front of him, just like a physical therapist, her body weight supporting him as he made tiny, unbalanced steps. The crowd roared as the pair slowly crossed the stage.
“I just always knew that I wanted to marry Emily,” Chris said. “It was even more special that she was the one that walked me across the stage of my college graduation as my fiancée, not just my girlfriend, but someone that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.”
With one walk behind them, the couple hatched their next challenge: walking together down the aisle at their wedding.
‘The best thing that we’ve ever done’
To focus on Chris’ training and to enjoy more accessibility and sunshine, Chris and Emily moved to Florida in May 2016. Not long after, a call for help came that they couldn’t ignore.
A student Emily had mentored in high school, Whittley, was now 17 and faced aging out of a group home for foster children. She had nowhere to go.
Emily and Chris, then just 22 and 23 years old, became Whittley’s foster parents for a year. They loved it and decided to foster more children. Soon, the couple — in the throes of wedding planning and Chris’ therapy — took in a 3-year-old and a 2-month-old.
“It’s slowly grown … and now we have five kids, 8 and under,” Emily said. “It is the best thing that we’ve ever done.
“Life has never been easier, and I know that’s crazy, but when you find something that you love so much, it just doesn’t seem like work, and it brings us so much joy, and it’s incredible to see the power of love.”
Chris’ motivational speaking supports the family, and he and Emily are also working on a book. Like any couple, they do their best to share the workload, but their situation is not typical.
Chris handles the finances, including paying the mortgage and bills, which he can do easily without moving his body. He has someone come clean the house, do laundry and wash dishes. “I wouldn’t want all that to be put on Emily,” he said.
“With the kids, I know that there wasn’t a lot I could do with helping them put a shirt on,” he said. “I can be more of a cheerleader and helping them grow as a person rather than being physically active.”
Some outsiders have admitted they don’t quite get Chris and Emily’s relationship.
“We do sometimes get that that people think I’m his sister or something, but honestly, just because we are so close and just with everything, me helping him feels like nothing. It’s just what you do when you love somebody,” Emily said. “Chris helps me as much as I help him, not necessarily in a physical way but in emotional ways. That’s the big part for me.”
To Chris, Emily “is just Wonder Woman.”
“We can travel all over the place, and she can get me in these awkward cars and down or up stairs,” he said. “She doesn’t complain. She just loves it and just has so much joy. I’m just in so much awe of her every single day.”
‘We all want to rise again’
After Chris’ graduation walk, the couple’s story gained national attention, and training for their wedding walk became less a personal duty than a mission to help others find hope, they said.
“I don’t have to walk to be happy,” Chris said. “It’s not me trying to get back my independence. It’s about me not being defined by my physical ability, being defined by a wheelchair — I’m so much more than that.
“We need to spread more hope in the world, and we need to be a light in the world,” he said. “We feel that it’s our calling from God and it’s our purpose, and it just brings me to life and it just energizes me.”
A documentary by Fotolanthropy, which describes itself as a “nonprofit organization that celebrates stories of hope of those who have defied great odds,” follows the couple’s journey to the altar. Called “7 Yards: The Chris Norton Story,” crowd-funding has raised almost half the $250,000 goal to cover production costs.
“What I’m passionate about is to share the experiences from the worst day of my life of suffering a spinal cord injury seven years ago to walking seven yards with my bride, the greatest day of my life,” Chris said. “I think that we all want to come back, we all want to rise again, and I’m just really excited to be able to share that.”