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Cody woman takes Ms. Wheelchair America title

Aug 19, 2013 - By Brett French, The Associated Press

Camouflage and tiaras don't typically mix, but Ashlee Lundvall has found a way to make the unusual combination work.

Lundvall, a 30-year-old Cody resident, recently ws crowned Ms. Wheelchair USA, an honor that she plans to use to bring greater attention to the numerous outdoor activities available to folks like herself.

"The main thing I want people to understand is that even with a disability, you can be active outdoors," she said in a recent telephone interview.

July pageant

Lundvall won the title out of a field of 10 finalists at the July 16-20 event in Ohio. She said she's never been the tiara type, but took on the challenge as one way to trumpet the volunteer Wyoming Disabled Hunters organization that she's involved with.

It's her participation in hunting, she believes, that helped set her apart from the other contestants.

"Hunting is a passion I found after I was disabled," Lundvall said.

Injured in 1999

In 1999, Lundvall was at a church ranch near Wapiti when she fell off a hayrack and broke her back. At age 16, she underwent rehabilitation therapy in Billings, Mont., for three months before returning to her home in Indianapolis and graduating from high school.

"I really wasted the next couple of years trying to force things," she said.

She had always wanted to be a doctor, but she abandoned that pursuit.

"I always tell people it takes more courage to let go of old dreams and move forward," she said. "There seems to be this philosophy that to beat your disability, you have to live like you did before. I disagree with that. If you can find a new dream, that can be even more exciting."

Master's degree

After graduating from college she went on to earn a master's degree in biblical counseling. Before finishing school, she met and married her husband, Russ Lundvall, a Cody native. The couple returned to Wyoming in 2006, and Ashlee gave birth to her daughter, Addison, who is now 2.

"I think she thinks this is all about her," Lundvall said of the recent pageant. "She loves the spotlight. We tease that it's a good thing we have two crowns because she took the Wyoming one away."

After moving to Wyoming, Lundvall got involved with the nonprofit Wyoming Disabled Hunters program. A co-worker at the time, Corey McGregor, invited her to go on a hunt in 2009.

"We asked her to try it and now she's addicted," McGregor said.

Hunting volunteer

Lundvall received notification that she drew her bull elk tag shortly before going to the Ms. Wheelchair USA competition, so she already felt like a winner.

Since that first year, when four hunters were aided by 25 volunteers, the group has grown to 27 hunters with 150 volunteers. The group funds all of the hunters' costs, except license and transportation to Wyoming.

"In a short amount of time, it's really exploded," McGregor said. "And we get hunters from all over the United States, not just locals."

Lundvall now hunts with a crossbow that has a CO2 cartridge that cocks the bow, so she can be independent of any help when shooting. But she enjoys all aspects of the sport, from stalking the animal to processing and eating wild game.

"It doesn't get much more organic than that," she said.

Hunting isn't her only outdoor passion. She also likes to ride ATVs, comparing them to souped-up wheelchairs that allow her to go places she otherwise wouldn't be able to reach. Kayaking on Buffalo Bill Reservoir is another passion, an activity that she excels at because of her upper-body strength. The family also goes camping in a retrofitted cargo trailer.

When asked to describe Lundvall, McGregor laughed, noting he had to be cautious about what he said.

"Boy, how do I describe her?" he said. "She's extremely nice, always helping people. She's one who, if you tell her something can't be done, she's going to do it. She's very strong-willed, but eager to try new things."

And that's how Lundvall ended up competing in the Ms. Wheelchair USA pageant -- a challenge that will also provide some opportunities to educate people about Wyoming -- "Some people think it's in Canada," she said -- as well as about hunting and other outdoor activities. Yet she certainly didn't expect to win.

"Right now, I think I'm still in a little bit of shock," she said. "But I'm really excited about the possibilities.

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