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Paralyzed hiker nears Appalachian Trail halfway point

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ROANOKE COUNTY (WSLS10)-- Hiking the Appalachian Trail from end to end is a major feat, only about 1 in 4 hikers who set out to hike the trail actually make it to the end. For one woman from Ohio, hiking the trail was always a dream-- and it seemed that's how it would stay once her legs became paralyzed two years ago. But thanks to computer generated leg braces, that dream is slowly becoming a reality.

The old saying is "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," but for Stacey Kozel, the 2,200 mile journey of the Appalachian Trail began long before her foot hit the dirt trail. Stacey has been suffering with Lupus since she was in her early 20s. For many people, Lupus doesn't affect the central nervous system, but for Stacey it did-- attacking her spinal cord and making her completely paralyzed just two years ago.

Earlier this year, she was fitted with a special pair of computer generated leg braces, called C-Braces, that help her walk. Within a month of learning how to really use them, she was out on the trail. When you see how smoothly she can walk and climb in the braces, it's hard to believe her legs are completely paralyzed. There are only 200 pairs of braces like this in the world, and Stacey has two of them.

"I had braces before this that locked, so I used to say I walked like Frankenstein," she says. "You can't really walk up and down mountains with straight legs, you're stiff legged. So these actually help me bend my knees, but there are still some parts that are just really steep."

The halfway point of the Appalachian Trail is between West Virginia and Maryland, a point Stacey is now just a few weeks from reaching. Because of the braces, she moves much slower than many of the other hikers on the trail. Stacey says she doesn't mind taking her time though, because it gives her a chance to meet more people along the way-- including many who push her to keep going.

"On the tough days when I ask myself, 'What the heck am I doing out here?' It's the people that keep me going," says Stacey. "it's been amazing, the support everyone has been giving me. I really appreciate it."

It seems the feeling is mutual. Many of the hikers she's met have been inspire by her journey, sharing stories of their interaction with the woman who is paralyzed, but hiking the Appalachian Trail.

"I just hope if people see me out here hiking, they won't give up," she says. "If it's something similar or something completely different, just don't ever give up. We don't know what the future holds."

Stacey says every step is worth it to achieve her goal and defy the odds. She's expecting to reach the end of the trail, in Maine, by the end of this year.

If you want to catch up with her-- she'll be hiking McAfee Knob and Dragon's Tooth over the next couple of days.

You can follow her amazing journey here.