When Marty O’Connor woke up, he couldn’t move.
He didn’t feel anything when his parents placed an ice cube on his chest or when they poked his foot with a needle, to the point of drawing blood.
O’Connor, an extreme sports athlete, became paralyzed from the neck down after passing out and falling down five stairs in Newport Beach after a long day in triple-digit heat.
His experience coming to terms with his disability is the subject of a short film, “Relentless,” by Chapman University film school graduate, Shelby Thompson.
The film, Thompson’s first major project, was recently announced as a finalist for a Student Academy Award. A special screening in San Clemente on Thursday kicked off a nationwide tour of the film.
“The film resonates with people because Marty’s story can happen to anyone,” said Thompson, 23. “It blows people’s minds once they watch the film. A lot of people think ‘Well, he was an extreme sports athlete, he probably got paralyzed jumping off a mountain.’ But he really got hurt stepping down stairs one day eating pizza, and it changed his life forever.”
The film served as Thompson’s senior thesis. She chose the subject after developing a friendship with O’Connor while interning for Divert Collective, the action sports company where O’Connor works.
O’Connor was a major force of encouragement behind Thompson‘s decision to major in film. She’d spent much of her first few years at Chapman switching from various majors until she was accepted into the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts.
Since Thompson graduated earlier this year, she and O’Connor have been traveling around and screening the film.
Neither Thompson or O’Connor were expecting the 24-minute film to have as much of an impact as it has.
“I didn’t have any expectations of it more than just a school project,” O’Connor said. “It obviously surprised the hell out of me a year later to see where we are.”
“Relentless” will be screened at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah at the end of this month.
O’Connor’s story has been inspirational to many. He accepted his paralysis after wrestling with it for years.
He went on to attain a master’s in business from Chapman University and start the Marty O’Connor Foundation for Progress.
“That’s the biggest thing when people watch the film, they think ‘Oh [expletive], this can happen to me,’ Thompson said. “Another overall message is how he embraces his challenges and achieves his goals no matter what. It definitely has inspired a lot of people [with] the whole message of don’t waste time doing things you don’t want to be doing. I think that really resonates and speaks [to] people when they watch it.”