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Paraplegic rolls cross-country to inspire others

Gabriel Cordell is a 42-year-old paraplegic who expects

Gabriel Cordell is a 42-year-old paraplegic who expects to make history Monday as the first person to travel across the country in a standard manual wheelchair. The finish line is West Hempstead High School, 3,100 miles from the start in Santa Monica, Calif. Credit: Lisa France

Gabriel Cordell is to roll into West Hempstead High School Monday night, making history as the first person to travel across the country in a standard manual wheelchair.

His arm-powered journey to the school, which he attended, is expected to end between 7 and 8 p.m. It began 3,100 miles away in Santa Monica, Calif.

"I am elated because we will cross into New York City soon," Cordell, 42, said as he worked his way through New Jersey. "I am mentally and physically exhausted. My body is pretty much beat up, and at this point I am running off sheer will."

Cordell said he had wanted to give up in Deming, N.M., when his arthritic joints ached and his body seemed on the verge of failing. But he kept going. He logged 11 to 43 miles each day, traveling through 12 states on his way back to where he spent most of his childhood.

Born Suheil Aghabi in Libya in 1970, Cordell -- who chose Gabriel as a professional name -- moved to Long Island with his family when he was 6. At West Hempstead High he played football and discovered a passion for acting, he said.

He was driving to his first professional acting audition in New York City when he was 22. A collision with another car left him paralyzed from the waist down, Cordell said.

The time following the crash was difficult for him and his family, but Cordell said he was inspired by children he met during his treatment at New York University's Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine in Manhattan.

"You have these children who are never going to know what normal is because of their illnesses," he said. "I had 22 years of a normal life, so I can't complain about my situation.

"I would never categorize myself as disabled," he said. "I am a paraplegic, nothing more, nothing less."

Despite losing the use of his legs, Cordell continued a career as a model and actor.

His 99-day cross-country trek is being filmed for a documentary, "Roll With Me: A Journey Across America."

In February, he presented his idea for the wheelchair trip to director and producer Lisa France in Los Angeles. France said she was intrigued by Cordell's life story and the potential the film had to inspire others.

"Part of this journey is about people having a bit of self-exploration," said France, who led the crew accompanying Cordell. "Several people in our group are leaving difficult situations behind 3,000 miles away that were holding them back. It's been very emotional."

Expenses for food, hotels, gas and a rented recreational vehicle were covered by $40,000 in donations.

France said she hopes to release the film in 2015.

Cordell said he plans to stay in West Hempstead for 10 days before heading back to his home in Los Angeles to begin postproduction work on the documentary.

His parents and older sister plan to meet him at the finish line.

Powering himself across the country with just the strength of his arms allowed Cordell to meet many different people.

"Sometimes you wonder if there are great people in this world or not," he said. "I'm here to tell you that there are wonderful, wonderful human beings all over this country; people who want to see others succeed."

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