It’s been three years since she was paralyzed from the waist down after a soccer incident injured her spinal cord.

But for Mackenzie Saunders, now a freshman at Desert Vista High School and walking on her own, it feels like much longer.

“You know, as a sixth-grader and not really digesting the whole situation, I thought it would be just another injury,” said Saunders, who was bound to a wheelchair for four months after the injury. “When (the doctors) said it would take years to recover, that’s when I realized it was serious.”

During a soccer game as a student at Kyrene Akimel A-al Middle School, Saunders was hit from behind by another player and it resulted in a month-long stay at various hospitals and a long road of physical therapy.

Now 14, and walking easily with the exception of an ankle brace from a different injury, Saunders said that season in life was a learning experience.

“Everything I’ve learned in the past few years has helped, like keeping a positive attitude, and I’ve been able to do some amazing things,” she said.

This week, Saunders was honored by the Phoenix Suns during their game against the Houston Rockets. As a former patient of Barrow Neurological Institute, Saunders met some of the players and was named an honorary team captain, along with her doctor.

“This was really exciting, and such an honor,” she said.

These days, Saunders doesn’t see much of the soccer field. Instead, she’s taken interest in various clubs like choir, student council and speech and debate. With added support from her friends, school peers and teachers, Saunders said she is truly blessed to be able to walk and get involved again.

Through meeting other kids with similar injuries while at Valley hospitals, Saunders said she realized she wasn’t alone on her journey.

“It’s about knowing that the things you learn are going to benefit you later in life, and it was all worth it in the end.”

• Contact writer: (480) 898-4903 or Follow her on Twitter @dmartinezAFN.

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