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How 22-Year-Old Man Who Lost Mom and Aunt in Car Crash That Left Him Paralyzed Finds Hope in Gym (Exclusive)

High school basketball star Ray "Speedy" Walker's world was turned upside down after losing the ability to walk — but a new gym has given him his life back

Iiana Panich-Linsman/Netflix Ray "Speedy" Walker (with Tan France) in a 2023 episode of <em>Queer Eye</em>
Iiana Panich-Linsman/Netflix Ray "Speedy" Walker (with Tan France) in a 2023 episode of Queer Eye

High school basketball star Ray “Speedy” Walker was on his way to lay flowers on his grandmother’s grave one afternoon in April 2020 when a black SUV slammed into the side of the car he was traveling in with his mother and aunt.

His mother, Eunique Ebbs, 45, a former school bus driver, fought to regain control of the vehicle, but within seconds it slammed into a tree.

“I blacked out,” Walker, who was 18 at the time of the fatal accident, tells PEOPLE.

The young athlete, who was riding in the back seat, adds, “When I woke up, I was up front facing the radio and I couldn’t move. It felt like a dream.”

Walker tried rousing his mother and aunt — Shaique Andrews, 23 — but neither responded and both died shortly after being airlifted to a nearby hospital with Walker.

Related: Paralyzed Dad in Wheelchair Builds Elaborate Bedroom for Daughters: 'It's a Huge Emotional Reward' (Exclusive)

<p>Ilana Panich-Linsman/Netflix</p> Ray Walker on <em>Queer Eye</em>

Ilana Panich-Linsman/Netflix

Ray Walker on Queer Eye

Before being wheeled into emergency surgery, Walker — who had dreams of playing college basketball — learned that he’d suffered a serious spinal cord injury. Since that day, he’s never taken another step and now uses a wheelchair to get around.

The transition from high-caliber athlete to a paraplegic was understandably difficult for Walker, and it was compounded by the tragedy of losing his mother and aunt.

“It was tough, but I promised myself in the hospital that I would be more positive and smile more and be grateful that I'm still here,” says Walker, whose life began to take a turn for the better a year after his car accident.

<p>Ilana Panich-Linsman/Netflix</p> Ray Walker at home in New Orleans

Ilana Panich-Linsman/Netflix

Ray Walker at home in New Orleans

That’s when he learned about a newly opened adaptive gym called Split Second Fitness that caters to those with spinal cord injuries, brain injuries and other disabilities. Created by New Orleans resident Mark Raymond Jr. after a diving accident in 2016 left him unable to walk and fully use his arms and hands, the gym — which opened in 2021 — provides specially designed workout equipment and therapy programs that allow clients to grow physically and mentally stronger.

For more on Walker and Raymond, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

For example, the center has seated elliptical bikes that move paralyzed users’ legs, while mental health experts facilitate the hard transition to a new way of living.

Related: Bride Walks Down the Aisle Three Years After Being Partially Paralyzed in Car Accident: 'I Did It'

“Split Second definitely changed my life,” says Walker, now 22, who can be found working out at the gym two to three times a week. “I don’t think I’d have gotten this far without them. It’s given all of us a chance to continue living, continue exercising and improving our quality of life. It’s become a second home for me."

<p>Ilana Panich-Linsman/Netflix</p> Walker with Karamo Brown in his 2023 <em>Queer Eye</em> episode

Ilana Panich-Linsman/Netflix

Walker with Karamo Brown in his 2023 Queer Eye episode

Raymond’s Split Second Foundation also found Walker an attorney who has helped the young man navigate his way through the convoluted social security system.

“Anybody’s life can change in a split second like mine did,” explains Raymond. “What our organization is really centered around is ‘How do I give you hope? And how can I help you transform that hope into action steps for you to create a better tomorrow?’ "

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Walker's hard work, combined with the resources available through Raymond’s gym and foundation, have helped him fulfill his goals of getting his own apartment and car.

“When you’re paralyzed,” says the charismatic Walker, whose story was told on an episode of the Netflix series Queer Eye in 2023, “it takes two times the strength to do what other people are doing. My goal has always been to regain my independence and live on my own, and Mark’s gym has helped me manifest that. What they do there is more than just about fitness.”

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