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Janne Kouri (B’97)

Founder, NextStep Fitness

By Nancy Freiberg

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In Janne Kouri’s native Finland, there is a word—sisu—that he says means “determination and perseverance and never giving up in the face of adversity and most of all not complaining.” That special word, along with the friendships he formed and the strength he built as a football player at Georgetown, helped Janne persevere after suffering a serious spinal-cord injury in 2006. He not only has learned to walk with assistance since then, but he also has created a nonprofit corporation called NextStep Fitness so that others can do the same.

From Tragedy to Training

Kouri was playing volleyball on a beach in California when he took a break and dove into the water. He hit his head on a sandbar and fractured his C5 and C6 vertebrae.

“I could tell I couldn’t move immediately,” Kouri recalls. “And I was floating on my back for I don’t know exactly how long, maybe 30 seconds or something like that, and just took a deep breath because I couldn’t move at all.”

An off-duty EMT saw Janne dive in and pulled him out of the water. After some time in the hospital, doctors told Janne’s then-girlfriend, Susan Moffat, that he would never walk again.

But Moffat, who later married Janne, wasn’t fazed by the remark. She did some research and discovered that a doctor named Susan Harkema, in Louisville, Ky., had been instrumental in developing a new therapy called locomotor training. The training, which NextStep now uses in its rehabilitation center in Lawndale, Calif., is designed to retrain the spinal cord, helping clients to “remember” the pattern of walking. Participants in the training are suspended in parachute-like harnesses over a treadmill as assistants manipulate their legs.

Moffat quit her job and brought Janne to see Harkema in Kentucky.

Raising Hope

Janne and his wife, family, friends, Harkema and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation’s Neurorecovery Network subsequently created NextStep Fitness. Now Janne’s goal is to raise money to create centers all over the country.

“Your muscles start deteriorating in 24 hours of lying down and not moving,” Janne says, noting that after he began locomotor training, his muscle tone, blood pressure, circulation and spirits improved. Soon he was able to step with assistance for an hour at a time. Now he can take steps with a walker.

“Some people [get this training] and they’ll walk again. Some people get it and they’re never going to walk again,” Janne says. “The benefits are different for everybody, but no matter what, there absolutely are benefits for everybody that tries it.”

A Wonderful Life

Janne’s personal goal is to walk again without assistance from any device. But Janne has a sisu view of his accident. “I have a wonderful life despite this injury,” he says. “I’ve met a lot of amazing people through this injury, and now we’re helping a lot of people, so it’s been a blessing in so many ways.”

At Georgetown, the 6-foot-4-inch Janne was a 283-pound defensive tackle who broke university records.

“Janne is one of the best football players ever to play in my 13 years at Georgetown,” says former Georgetown football coach Bob Benson, who visited Janne in the spring of 2009 with his daughter, Kaylyn. “Athletically, he is the best of the best.”

“Janne has turned a life-altering incident into a quest to find a cure for spinal injuries for everyone,” Benson says. “… [His] pursuit to help others, not just himself, speaks volumes for who Janne Kouri is as a person. … Perhaps everyone can learn something from Janne and Susan’s courage and love for life.”

Friendships for the Journey

Janne has fond memories of his years in and out of the classroom.

“My [Georgetown] experience was absolutely incredible, not only in terms of education and athletics,” he says, “but … an incredible group of friends that I’ve kept to date.”

At a hotel before a fundraiser for the nonprofit group in Washington last year, Janne’s iPhone was buzzing away. His friends David Brinkley (F’97) and Mark Ivcevich (B’97) showed up to keep him company.

“I think we all valued our friendships at Georgetown, but he took it to another level,” Brinkley says. “I think that’s why he’s been able to bring so many people with him on the journey he’s on right now. ... I think it’s amazing, what he’s done.”

Step by Step

Ivcevich, who played football with Janne, says Janne was “always very stubborn. I think that has served him well during this because he has a certain willingness to keep pushing through.”

Rob Sgarlata (C’94, G’13), now Georgetown’s assistant head football coach, also played with Janne and helps raise money for NextStep.

“He came and spoke to our team before the beginning of one of our games,” says Sgarlata, who has invited Janne back to Georgetown several times. “One of the first things he said was, ‘As soon as this happened to me, I really didn’t hang my head, I was just trying to figure out what my next step was.’”

July 29, 2010 | Nancy Freiberg is editor of Georgetown Magazine.