Ashley Riott is a colorful character with a VR origin story as striking as her long pink hair. A freak injury while out running led to her being rendered almost completely immobile, and needing risky spinal surgery. Around this time she discovered virtual reality, a tool she used extensively to aid, not only her physical recovery but also to alter the direction of her life. In a stunning change of life trajectory Ashley went from being a near invalid, to becoming a professional Esports participant, top Beat Saber player, and a recruiter for world-leading professional VR Esports organization Team Gravity. She now hosts her own podcast, runs VR events and writes freelance for various sites, including VR Fitness Insider!

We thought it was an inspiring story worth telling our readers about, so I sat down with Ashley to find out more:

VRFI – Hey Ashley, thanks for agreeing to interview with me today. Let’s begin with your life before the injury, talk me through your background and the events that led up to you needing spinal surgery.

Ashley – I’ve always been pretty active. I took dance as a child—ballet, hip hop, tap—and was on swim team every summer up until graduating high school. I took karate, was on the volleyball team in middle school, and did little league and softball as well.

When I got into college I started biking and running. I did the MS150—a two-day bike ride from Houston to Austin benefiting Multiple Sclerosis—every year for three years and participated in various 10ks & 5ks throughout the same time. During one of my training runs, I took a completely unremarkable step—one absolutely like millions of others preceding it—and inadvertently set off a nuclear warhead in my lower back.

Blind and mute from the pain, I collapsed. I would later learn the disc which sat between my L5 and S1 vertebrae had popped out and torn. I had several epidural injections in an attempt to deaden nerves being affected by the protruding disc. These procedures did require complete anesthesia and never really fully helped. As time went on, my condition worsened as the disc was pushed further and further into my sciatic nerve.

Eventually, I would lose almost all function in my left leg, and most feeling in my left hip due to sciatic nerve impairment. I was in a walker full time and could no longer sit upright. Even with my walking aide, I could only go about a hundred steps before I would have to sit down. I was in pain all the time. My body had gone from very capable to very not capable in just a few years.

VRFI – That must have been awful, especially for someone so active and athletic. Thankfully you didn’t remain in this state, what happened next?

Ashley – Once I became unable to walk unassisted I was put on a waiting list for spine surgery. During this time I wasn’t able to do any of the things I previously loved. Hiking, running, going for walks or a drive, even sitting at my computer to play games with my friends was impossible. The only position I was remotely comfortable in was laying on my right side and that was my life for eight months while I waited my turn for surgery.

I had the surgery in the Spring of 2018 facing a 15% chance it would be unsuccessful. Luckily that wasn’t the case! I remember waking up and just crying from happiness. I was in pain, but it was a different kind of pain. This pain was familiar and sore and manageable. I knew it had worked.

VRFI – So at this point after your operation, you discover VR. Tell me about your first experiences with the technology, and how you used VR to aid your recovery. Do you feel that exercising in virtual reality was a more motivating and beneficial therapy than using more traditional rehabilitative methods?

Ashley – Recovery was slow. I was in the hospital for a few days, and unable to walk very well for a few weeks after going home. Once I started taking a few three minute walks a day I asked my physical therapist if I could play Beat Saber as a part of my recovery. We went over safety requirements—good form for squatting below walls, keeping core engaged and spine straight, not overexerting myself—and it was approved.

Ashley is a VTuber, meaning she streams in avatar form. This her avatar self.

I started with one song a day and slowly increased over time. Once I was able to play for about an hour, I started streaming my gameplay on Twitch to my friends who didn’t have VR. I wanted them to see how amazing it was and what it was doing to help me. Before I knew it, people I had never met were stopping by to watch me.

As far as whether or not it’s more motivating and beneficial than traditional rehabilitative methods. I think it certainly can be. I enjoy being in VR, it’s fun. Because of this, I’m more likely to be consistent and I need far less motivation—both internal and external—to do what I need to do to meet my goals. I think in this way it can be paradigm-shifting not just for rehabilitation but also for weight loss and physical transformation.

VRFI – I know that rhythm games in general and Beat Saber, in particular, played a huge part in your recovery, what other active games and titles did you use, and what are your favorite exercise titles now?

Ashley – I play everything now. All of the time. You can’t get me out of the headset, haha. VR is basically my life and I want to try it all. Some of my favorite active titles are Audio Trip, Pistol Whip, Audica, and Synth Riders. I might have a teeny preference for rhythm games… I also really like Box VR for fitness.

As you can see from the video below, she got rather good at Beat Saber!

VRFI – It’s incredible that VR helped you achieve such transformative recovery results, but really that is just the beginning of your story. You’ve managed to turn your love of VR into an entire career and lifestyle now, let’s talk about that. Maybe start with your entry into the world of competitive Esports competition, and you become a professional gamer and member of Team Gravity.

Ashley – When I first started streaming it was really just to show my friends who didn’t have VR the amazing things it was doing for me and my recovery. As time went on, more and more folks started tuning in, and before I knew it, I found myself at Twitchcon hosting a house with a bunch of Beat Saber/VR players.  After Twitchcon, I couldn’t stop talking about VR to anyone who would listen and went on to host several more gaming houses and even started my own podcast which interviewed prominent members of the VR community.

Eventually, I was approached by Team Gravity to be a content creator for them, which enabled me to travel to the UK for the first time in my life in 2019 for the VR world finals. I began writing VR focused articles for websites and very recently began working with Andromeda, a studio that produces VR titles like Audio Trip. In fact, I’ve actually very recently transitioned into doing VR focused things full time which is basically a dream come true.

Through VR Ashley has made many new friends and teammates, competing at events around the world.

VRFI – It’s great that the social aspect of VR has been so transformative for you, what advice do you have for others who want to get into VR games competitions, or become a part of larger VR communities?

Ashley – If you want a thing to exist or if you want to be something… just do it. I know that sounds simple but it can be so dang hard and intimidating and scary. At the start, I questioned everything I did. I worried whether or not it was good enough, or if anyone would like it. It’s actually something I still struggle with and am still actively working on now. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter as long as you’re doing and creating what you love, getting better every day, and are happy.

VRFI – Finally, I know you also blog and have your own weekly podcast. Tell us more about these and how people can tune in to you if they want to watch your streams live, or access podcasts previously recorded?

Ashley – 🙂

VRFI – Thanks Ashley for your time, and good luck with your continued recovery!

Reflecting on her journey and how she’s come, Ashley looks forward to the challenges of the new year ahead.