Jan Parks Cornett (’10) was born paralyzed, but her stubbornness—and her love of Pat Summitt and Peyton Manning—helped her take her first steps when she was seven years old.
She now takes on 5K races, with her husband, Nic, filming each step along the way for a documentary called How to Make an Athlete.
A Knoxville native, Cornett was born with the birth defect spina bifida, in which an exposed spinal cord in a developing baby causes paralysis.
“The doctors told my parents to prepare to raise a child in a wheelchair,” she said. “They remodeled the house to make room for a wheelchair.”
Cornett started physical therapy as an infant. She learned to use a walker at age two and later graduated to forearm crutches. By age seven, she was walking with leg braces, which she still uses today.
But before she learned how to walk, she learned how to ride a horse.
“My uncle, who is a farrier [a person who shoes horses] in Wartburg, put me on a horse when I was just two years old. I fell in love.”
Cornett’s mom found Shangri-La Therapeutic Academy of Riding in Lenoir City, Tennessee, and enrolled her daughter in riding lessons.
Her time at Shangri-La prepared Cornett to become a para-athlete on UT’s equestrian team, a first in the school’s history. She placed in every show in which she competed.
Shangri-La is also where she met her husband, who was volunteering at the academy as an archery instructor.
The couple started dating in 2008 and married in 2011, one year after Cornett graduated from UT’s College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences with a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy.
Her husband served eight years before receiving an honorable discharge from the military in 2016. They now live in Los Angeles, where he is finishing his cinematography degree along with his first feature-length documentary—one inspired by his wife’s racing journey.
“Jan is the strongest person I know,” he said. “After the Marines, I started running marathons. Jan saw how much I enjoyed it and all the medals I was getting, so she decided she wanted some medals of her own.”
Inspired by the legendary coach Pat Summitt and her motto “Left foot. Right foot. Breathe. Repeat,” Cornett decided to not think about her disability too much but just get out there and do what she wanted to do.
“I’d watch Nic race and wonder if I could do that many miles,” said Cornett. “So we signed up for the polar plunge in Virginia Beach. I walked 3.2 miles and ended up in the ocean. But I felt amazing and stronger. I got bit by the racing bug after that.”
Cornett has competed in seven 5Ks in the past two years. Each race takes her about 90 minutes to complete, but she is trying to cut her time in half.
She ends most days in pain because she uses her back and side muscles to walk. She walks with her dog every morning and has cut her time down to 19 minutes per mile.
Her husband started filming her training journey a year ago.
“I asked Jan where her dream race would be to finish this goal, and she said Ireland,” said Nic. “So I said, ‘OK, let’s go. That’s where this film will end.’”
Last week, she completed her first international 5K at the Rock ’n Roll Marathon in Dublin. “She didn’t make her goal time, but she was greeted at the finish line with a hero’s welcome,” said Nic. “She was the last person to finish the race, but she inspired everyone there.”
The Cornetts hope to premiere their documentary at the Sundance Film Festival and then look for distribution through an online streaming service.
“Whenever we’re walking around, people stare at Jan and you can see the judgment on their faces,” said Nic. “If more people see her story, maybe they will think twice about judging someone by how they walk.”
He hopes everyone in the world will see it and be inspired by his wife’s courage and determination—something Cornett’s heroes Summitt and Manning know all about.
“I love UT, and I knew ‘Rocky Top’ by the time I was four,” she said. “I looked up to them and how good they were at what they did. I just thought they were amazing. Participating in these races is not about winning. I just want to improve my time and improve myself.”
Running against all odds, Cornett is overcoming adversity one step at a time.
Left foot. Right foot. Breathe. Repeat.