When a robber’s bullet ripped through Kristina Ripatti’s spine, it did more than paralyze her from the chest down. It stripped away every part of the Los Angeles police officer’s former life.
She had been a talented athlete — a former collegiate soccer player who enjoyed biking and surfing when she wasn’t patrolling the streets around USC. Everything changed the night she was shot while chasing an ex-con suspected of robbing a gas station. Once-routine tasks became a frustrating struggle.
So when dozens of news articles and television programs began painting her as an inspirational hero, Ripatti was happy to embrace the label. After all, she needed a new identity. Why not become the tough-as-nails Los Angeles Police Department cop who battled back from the edge of death to triumph over adversity?
For a while, it worked. She trained furiously to recover her athletic prowess. She raced in wheelchair marathons and tried motivational speaking. But it felt like an act. Something dark loomed inside.
“I could feel this sucking black hole of nothingness,” Ripatti said. “Everything was lost. I came to realize that if I had any sense of my identity, it would have still existed after my injury. But that was the problem — there was this big black hole instead.”
Five years after the shooting, the media attention had long faded away. Exercise and competitions could no longer distract from the inner pain and torment. The stress proved too much for her marriage. Disconnected and isolated, Ripatti drifted for years in a sea of anguish.
Through those difficult times, one tiny glimmer of hope sustained her. It patiently waited, ready to accept her when the time was right.
“It was just a couple of years ago that I finally felt that getting my graduate degree in social work would be something I could do authentically and with passion,” Ripatti said.
Swim With Mike scholarship provides hope for new way forward
Fulfilling a dream she formed in the weeks after her injury, Ripatti enrolled in the master’s program at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. She credits a longtime scholarship program based at USC for her return to the classroom.
Now in its 38th year, Swim With Mike provides financial and emotional support to physically challenged athletes, allowing them to pursue a degree in higher education. It has raised more than $20 million and funded 218 scholarships since its inception.
“When you have this kind of catastrophic injury and your whole world is turned upside down and you are stripped of your identity, Swim With Mike provides this light and new path of hope,” Ripatti said. “And along that new path, this whole team of people is there for you, to help you along, to provide you with resources and encouragement and direction and family.”
Greatly influenced by her personal experiences in recovery, she focuses her education on adult mental health and wellness. Although she still has a year left in the part-time program, she is already developing a vision for her future.
One idea is to create a therapeutic living community for people recovering from mental health challenges like depression, anxiety or trauma. Rather than focusing on medical support like some residential treatment facilities, she envisions a holistic approach that emphasizes relationships and social bonds. Residents would be encouraged to build a close alliance with one another as they heal.
“Through this whole process, I discovered that connection with people is what is so valuable,” Ripatti said. “Ultimately, people have an inherent need to feel that they belong. It’s about community.”
Encouraging positive social skills to improve society
Another objective she might pursue is advocating for a school-based curriculum focused on communication and social skills. Starting in elementary school and continuing into early adulthood, children would receive formal training in how to resolve conflict and understand the needs of others. Ripatti believes building those skills early and reinforcing them throughout childhood and adolescence could have a broader effect on other societal problems.
You have to learn how to empathize, you have to learn how to communicate.
“You have to learn how to empathize, you have to learn how to communicate,” she said. “People expect these things to somehow occur magically.”
She has found a perfect fit for her vision of building a stronger social fabric at the Relational Center, the Los Angeles-based nonprofit where she interns as part of her social work training. The center emphasizes the importance of personal connections for people like Ripatti, who provides group and individual therapy with her trademark focus on building relationships and rapport with clients.
She knows the path forward may be tough. She is still dealing with her own challenges, including the lingering effects of a brain injury caused by the massive blood loss she experienced after being shot. But Ripatti is cautiously hopeful for the future, and she thanks Swim With Mike organizers for not giving up on her.
“They are very patient and understanding and saint-like,” she said.
She plans to be poolside at the USC Uytengsu Aquatics Center for Swim With Mike’s annual fundraiser on April 7, ready to celebrate alongside other scholarship recipients and supporters. She is also doing what she can to give back, organizing an individual fundraising campaign through the program and telling everyone she comes across about the support it provides to physically challenged athletes.
“It’s amazing how many scholarships they can provide now with all the money they’ve raised,” she said. “It’s like a tidal wave effect — a ripple becomes a tidal wave. I guess that’s how the momentum of love can carry.”