Ellie Phipps – Featured Fly Girl

PC – Donnie Hunger

As a nurse, angler and outdoor enthusiast, I was touched by Ellie Phipps story. Ellie’s strength to survive and fight is inspiring. Despite all of the obstructions in Ellie’s path, she continues to bushwhack her way through life.  The following story is told by writer Emily Ainslie.

PC – Brian Oliver

Ellie Phipps always knew her life would be an action packed roller coaster of adventure, but probably not exactly in the way she envisioned. Her journey has been thrilling, heart-breaking, unimaginable, and above all, completely inspiring. This unstoppable woman has conquered ranch life, climbed mountains and skied back down them, beaten bilateral breast cancer, started her own business, and raised a beautiful daughter – and that was all just during her 30s.

But things didn’t slow down then for Ellie, as perhaps they never will. She has faced setback after setback, using her competitive nature and exceptional inner strength to smile in the face of adversity and find a way to conquer the challenges ahead of her, no matter how big they may seem.

PC – Barrow Neurological Institute

Ellie was focusing on her cancer survival and taking care of her teenage daughter who at 15 years old had recently been diagnosed with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) complicated by spinal meningitis, when she was hit by a drunk driver traveling at approximately 45 MPH – he never hit the brakes.  Ellie suffered severe spinal damage, head injuries and extensive damage to her right hip, knee and ankle, ultimately requiring very serious spinal surgery.  Ellie spent a month in ICU and a respite facility in Phoenix before returning home to Colorado in a wheelchair, a half body TLSO cast (worn 24/7), and on full time oxygen. The initial eight months post op she wasn’t even allowed to lie down, instead having to sleep upright a medical chair. While the surgery was ultimately successful, her life would never be the same again.

Although Ellie was resolved in retaining a positive outward attitude, inside she was devastated she couldn’t do the things she loved. She was told she would never be able to climb mountains, mountain bike, snowboard, trail run or ride horses again, all things that had been an important part of her life before the accident. She focused on her recovery but progress was slow and tedious.

“Although I still navigate debilitating pain and weakened spinal stamina, I’ve discovered a new outdoor passion that brings me an incredible amount of peace and joy and I just can’t seem to get enough of it.  I want to share this joy, passion and hope with other women who find themselves in similar circumstances.”

Adding huge insult to injury, she Ellie discovered that the drunk driver who had hit her had six prior DUIs, no driver’s license, denied having car insurance, and had also tested positive for methamphetamine. Ellie was shocked. How could this happen? Wasn’t there a three strikes rule? How could someone re-offend this many times without serious consequence? Seventh offense? This was no “accident”.

To Ellie, it was no different than someone deciding to point a loaded gun down a busy corridor of innocent people. Only swap the loaded gun for an almost 4,000 pound solid steel vehicle traveling out of control upwards of 50 mph. After some investigation, she learned that Colorado was one of four states left in the US without a felony DUI law on the books.

Unbelievably, regardless of the number of times a person was caught and convicted of drunk driving, each DUI counted only as an individual (non-stacking) misdemeanor; without the possibility of a significant jail sentence. Almost immediately Ellie vowed to do everything within her power to change the outdated state drunk driving laws so this wouldn’t happen to anyone else. And, in true Ellie style, she succeeded. Through grass roots cold-calling and campaigning at local and state levels, and leveraging the local, regional and national media to share her story, she slowly gained support from other Coloradoans who much like herself, had no idea how broken their state’s DUI laws were.

She drove the brutal 8-hour round trip dozens of times over a three-year period to and from the state capitol. Still in a half body cast, on oxygen and in debilitating pain, Ellie testified, sharing her story multiple times in front of the House of Representatives and state Senate. And, with the support of other drunk driving victims and their families, Ellie was able to bring about significant change. In April 2015 Colorado’s first Felony DUI Law was signed into law by then Governor Hickenlooper. While it provided her with some closure and relief to know there was significantly less chance of this now happening to someone else, it didn’t change the fact that it had happened to Ellie. She had been so active, so full of life, and now was unable to spend her time how she wanted to, due to the recklessness of somebody else.

Despite her legislative triumph, Ellie was angry and frustrated beyond belief that she couldn’t do the things she so loved. Ellie’s brother (an avid fly fisherman) recognized this, and to intervene introduced her to a fly rod and took her into Yellowstone Park while visiting him in Montana.

“Being out on the river surrounded by beautiful, tranquil scenery did wonders to improve my outlook.”

Her spine may have been shattered, but her casting arm worked just fine. Returning home, Ellie poured her energy into fly fishing. She read books, watched all the Joan Wulff and Lefty Kreh YouTube tutorials she could, and got her hands on some gear. She learned about the various hatches and life cycles of the river insects, how to navigate a freestone river in a half body brace, how to cast to a feeding trout and how to set a hook. And, although still in significant pain, Ellie was outdoors again, feeding her soul and getting a different kind of adrenaline rush.  Almost instantly, fly fishing was becoming her passion, and she craved the meditative, outdoor nature, peace and solitude it brought her.

PC – Donnie Hunger

Since that fateful trip to Montana about a year and a half ago, Ellie has continued to make significant fly fishing progress and is on her way to becoming a skilled angler. Mostly self-taught through trial and error (emphasis on the error part), Ellie’s naturally competitive nature means that she is always trying to improve her skills. Her newfound love of the sport has resulted in many new friendships with other fly fishing enthusiasts who have helped Ellie start a new chapter in her life. When her cardiothoracic surgeon came up to fish with her from Phoenix, the pair hired a fly fishing guide and Ellie met Shannon Outing for the first time. The two have formed a strong friendship, and Shannon was able to introduce Ellie to Casting for Recovery– an incredible quality of life program where women with breast cancer are given the opportunity to learn to fly fish at a three day all expenses paid retreat culminating on the last day with a morning on the water with an experienced fly fishing guide.

Shannon and Ellie – PC – Scott Spooner, Owner of Taylor Creek Fly Shop

According to Ellie, herself now a 23-year bilateral breast cancer survivor, there is an instant unspoken connection you feel among fellow breast cancer survivors; without saying a word you just “get” one another and understand the pain and joys you’ve each been through. The magic of landing a trout on a fly rod can help to take away, even if for just a few days, some of the pain of their struggles and serve as a distraction from the challenges these women are facing. What’s more, lifelong friendships are forged and precious memories are created. Ellie became so passionate about fly fishing and believed so strongly in the power of Casting for Recovery that she began volunteering for the organization soon after the 2018 retreat, and is returning this fall as part of CfR’s fly fishing staff. She spends every second she can out on the river, casting, improving, catching, and savoring each moment outdoors. She strives for bigger fish, better casts, and has a smile on her face that in no way reflects the hardships that life has cast her way.

2018 Casting For Recovery Retreat – PC – Scott Spooner, Owner of Taylor Creek Fly Shop

Ultimately, Ellie’s dream is to bring this joy to other women, with a focus on those like herself that who have navigated trauma, and spread the love for fly fishing by introducing others to the sport. Regardless of whether or not they have had trauma in their lives, Ellie passionately believes that every woman should have a chance to learn and experience the magic of being on the water – fly rod in hand, heart in mouth, casting to a rising fish, ready to set that hook, and fall in love with the craft as much as she has.

PC – Scott Klahn

To find out more about the Ellie and her fight against Drunk Driving and Casting for Recover click on the following links:

Ellie Phipps –
Instagram * Facebook * Email – mtnflygirlco@gmail.com

Casting for Recovery –
https://flyfishingvideos.orvis.com/freshwater/casting-recovery/

1. Some Drunken Drivers Keep Returning to the Road Despite Repeat Offenses
NBC Today Show and NBC Nightly News –

2. Grand Junction woman fights for felony DUI bill to pass Colorado Senate
ABC Affiliate KJCT8 News and NBC Affiliate KKCO News 
https://www.nbc11news.com/home/headlines/Grand-Junction-woman-fights-for-felony-
DUI-bill-to-pass-Colorado-Senate-295502271.html
March 7, 2015

3. Felony DUI Soon to be Law
FOX Affiliate – KREX News and Western Slop Now
https://www.westernslopenow.com/news/local-news/felony-dui-soon-to-be-
law/151718055
May 6, 2015

4. Local Woman Hit by Drunk Driver Shares Experience
ABC Affiliate KJCT8 News and NBC Affiliate KKCO News 
https://www.kjct8.com/content/news/DUI-crash–impacts-GJ-resident–477149343.html
March 16, 2018

5. Felony DUI Law Takes Effect Wednesday
ABC Affiliate KJCT8 News and NBC Affiliate KKCO News 
https://www.kjct8.com/home/headlines/320447472.html
August 2, 2015

6. Grand Junction woman fights for felony DUI bill to pass Colorado Senate
ABC Affiliate KJCT8 News and NBC Affiliate KKCO News 
https://www.nbc11news.com/home/headlines/Grand-Junction-woman-fights-for-felony-
DUI-bill-to-pass-Colorado-Senate-295502271.html
March 7, 2015

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