Lake Tahoe filmmaker tells compelling and inspiring comeback stories in “Momentum” | South Lake Tahoe

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – We hear the words resiliency, sacrifice, and vulnerability almost daily, but their true meanings may have never been more relevant than in the ultimate comeback story being told in the film, Momentum.

If you aren’t aware of the comeback stories of South Lake Tahoe residents Chris “Coco” Cocores and Ryan Wallace, you soon will through the vision and camera of local filmmaker Michelle Aguilar and co-director Lane Power.

Chris was a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) titleholder at the time of a life-changing event in 2017.

It has been 1,414 days since Chris was involved in a horrific three-car head-on collision that took the life of his girlfriend Cecilia Casares and their dog, and left him with broken bones and spine, intubated with major atrophy. She had been driving them back to their La Mesa home after spending the holidays in Lake Tahoe with family.

“When I first woke up in the hospital on December 29 I told doctors I wanted to fight again, they looked at me like I was crazy,” says the now 30-year-old.

Michelle was living in Washington, D.C., and about to move back to South Lake Tahoe when she heard about Coco’s tragedy and said she was heartbroken. Through social media, she followed his journey and determination to fight again.

“I didn’t want to regret not documenting his comeback,” said Michelle. The 34-year-old South Tahoe High graduate knew films about comeback stories take years and knew she had to commit for a number of years.

Michelle graduated from Cal Poly – San Luis Obispo with a degree in business, then joined the Peace Corps and headed to Panama right after. She says she really got into filmmaking while in Panama, but always had a connection to the camera and filming life.

She said her dad was always filming every moment, and not just at games and recitals, but in everyday life. He captured all the moments, even if it was just around the dinner table.

“I didn’t realize how special that was until in film school,” said Michelle. “It rubbed off me in high school.

As a gift for her friends in high school at graduation, Michelle invited them over to her house for an outside movie night. She surprised her friends with a two-hour movie about them from the film she’d been taking over the previous four years of school. She told the story of their high school years through film, something she continues to do.

She has traveled to over 30 countries since the Peace Corps, always with a camera in hand, always understanding the power of film. When Michelle was in Northern India she met with Tibetan refugees and filmed their stories of exile. She used that film to get into grad school, knowing she needed more training on the technical aspect of what she saw as her career.

Professionally trained at UC Santa Cruz, Michelle is a “one-woman-band” filmmaker as she can film, produce, write, edit, and do the rest of the tasks needed to make a successful film.

After UCSC, she headed to Washington, D.C., and worked for a social justice filmmaking company, Meridian Hill Pictures.

“I am so grateful for the time I spent with them,” she says.

Michelle has two previous films in educational distribution through New Day Films, and has her own company and website, www.smallpumpkin.com.

In South Lake Tahoe she has joined forces with Lane Power. He is originally from Idaho but has been a South Lake Tahoe local for over 20 years with his company, Lane Power Films. Michelle said they complement each other – he as a talented cinematographer, she as the director and producer.

Michelle said she likes films that don’t just tell someone how to think and feel, but one that makes them want to have conservation afterward.

“It will be an exciting film, not just for people who love MMA,” said Michelle of her and Lane’s film, Momentum. “This is a human story that is interesting, compelling, focuses on teamwork and coaching, and it will be approachable to a large audience.”

Chris “Coco” Cocores

As Chris lay in a hospital bed, with his laptop damaged in the crash, he took to his phone and started posting on social media – first about the crash and what happened. He got a large following and received messages of encouragement from around the world.

There were articles written about his survival, then came home and made a video that went viral. he told about his story, and that is where Michelle caught his story, Chris said.

“I knew my next step would be telling more of my story, and doing what good I could with it,” said Chris. He then met Michelle. “I got a great vibe from her,” he said.

With a broken spine, major atrophy, a broken arm, and leg, Chris wasn’t one to wallow in pity. He knew if he could make anything happen it would be to do something to honor Cecilia.

From the moment he woke up in the hospital he set a goal and he hasn’t lost sight of that goal, he would get healthy and move things further in his career.

And he wants to inspire others in his sport.

When he first stood up in the hospital he shadowboxed and he didn’t want to lose muscle memory, his skill, nor his talent.

“When I first got out of the hospital, stories were out that I recovered, but for me, there was a bigger, deeper goal,” said Chris.

Life for Chris restarted on Jan 1, 2018.

On Jan 8, 2020, he was medically cleared to fight again and he booked his first post-recovery MMA fight for August 17, 2020. The last fight he’d had was two years prior on August 18, 2018.

The metal had been removed from his spine, he moved into a state of survival and he’d learned how to live again and had a “normal life.”

Then COVID happened so life pivoted again.

There were no scheduled fights until he a Sparta MMA event in Colorado. He found it hard to restart and get a warmup fight scheduled so, in true Chris-fashion, he jumped right into the main event.

On January 30, 2021, the fight turned into a story told from start to finish. Chris said he didn’t know what would happen in this first fight back and “got beat up pretty bad.” For eight minutes and 50 seconds he got hurt, then, in the last ten seconds of the fight, he knocked out his opponent.

“Couldn’t have written a better script,” said Chris. “A comeback to the comeback. It was a fairy tale ending of the fight and recapped the previous two years.”

Michelle filmed everything over the last three years, the training, the fight, life.

“I had so much fun making it, but it’s a lot of work,” said Chris. “We filmed the whole recovery process to final surgery. I want the story to get out there to help others, just want to do the best I can.”

One might think the comeback story ended here, but this past summer Chris was training in Guam with the Olympians before they went to Japan. While training he broke a leg, in fact, his fibula broke in half.

So comeback number two is just ahead. He said his leg is healing and he’ll be cleared again to fight on November 19.

A lot of his comeback is due to his support team, Chris said. Jamison DeLallo was the guy who got him through it, he said, with diet, yoga, and his expertise in kinesiology and as a movement specialist. Allan at Barton is also a part of that recovery team. He said Jamison started making him a plan and worked with him, never doubting his goal.

“I owe that guy my life,” said Chris of Jamison.

“I had been told by another group of specialists that I’d never fight again. They said we’ll get you healthy, but no competitions,” said Chris. “I told Jamison I could do it.”

He’s had over 60 stitches, 20 staples, four major surgeries, sets of hardware – Chris said he was terrified of getting a stitch before the accident. The crash was 150 mph combined speed of the cars involved. Besides the broken spine and bones he had 20 stitches in his eyes and couldn’t see.

Right now he is helping others get ready for the upcoming MontBleu fight, then when able to fight he plans to go to Asia. He is officially ranked number one in California in his MMA class and is ready to move onto the pros. His amateur career is 8-4 on paper.

“I am a product of my environment – how could you not be successful?” said Chris.”

Chris said it’s been a challenge for him to be in the public eye, but he got used to having is every movement being filmed.

He lost his mom to cancer when he was 19.

“I saw her fight that battle and it inspired me,” said Chris.

Another source of inspiration is Ryan Wallace. “I’ve never met a guy who works more than Ryan, it’s inspiring.”

Ryan Craig Wallace

Another South Lake Tahoe story of determination, heart, and soul is that of Ryan.

Michelle was reintroduced to Ryan at the gym and wanted to include his story in Momentum.

Ryan has a story of resiliency starting with his losing his leg at the age of 19 due to a rare form of bone cancer.

Many in South Lake Tahoe know native son Ryan, whether it’s from his starting to wrestle at age 5, being a high school and middle school coach, or from when the community pulled together in 2014 to raise funds for his new prosthetic leg. Or perhaps it was when the community was pulling for him in the Endeavor Games where he competed in powerlifting, discus, shot put, and sitting volleyball.

Wallace is also known for his participation in the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam Jiu-Jitsu World Tour in 2017. While there as a member of the US Para Jiu-Jitsu team, Ryan came in second place behind the Brazilian national champ. He is now training for the upcoming WFC fight at Montbleu where he competes against men with two legs.

Ryan has honed his weight lifting regimen to balance strength gains with endurance, on Sundays he rides the exercise bike for a few hours.

“The jiu-jitsu scene in town has never been stronger, Gavin Marshall in particular who teaches at Escobar Training Grounds has helped me a lot and was, fortunately, training for Master’s Worlds during my fight camp so he was locked in at the exact right time,” said Ryan. “High School Wrestling season starts the Saturday before WFC so I have also had the opportunity to do the pre-season conditioning drills with them it’s fun to have a common bond with them.”

“Before Coco (Chris Cocores) was in his accident we had a great relationship,” said Ryan. “He came to a Beach Wrestling tournament that South Tahoe Wrestling puts on and there were a few techniques I recognized that I could show him to add to his repertoire. He was extremely receptive to technical lessons and also willing to listen to me preach about resilience, mental toughness, good citizenship, integrity, etc.

Ryan worked out with Chris – they both have come back in their mind and on their lips.

“His courage in the face of adversity and his determination to recover his former form and exceed it caught the attention of the documentary team,” said Ryan. “I was by his side telling hilarious jokes, showing sound techniques, and sharing the wisdom I gained from my own comeback story a decade or so earlier.”

Having Ryan as part of Momentum was easy to do. While Chris’s story is the driving force of the documentary, Ryan’s story needs to be shared as well.

“I am blessed with a visual encumbrance that anyone can relate to (the loss of a limb),” said Ryan. “Every time, I have disallowed amputation to be an excuse it has proven to be a catalyst for people around me to find a way to push past their own potential excuses. Being an inspiration is a gift and a compliment. If you are only competing for material items, or fame, or pride eventually it will be enough, it will satisfy your desire and you will lose motivation. I am grateful because I am no longer trapped in that type of superficial cycle, there are literally billions of people thus billions of reasons for me to keep striving.”

How People Can Help – Crowd Funding

Michelle and Lane are now in the Crowd Funding stage of the movie. The three years of filming are done with principal production, and if they get enough funding they can do post-production.

The team is shooting for $50,000 raised, so they can take the steps to get the film into the festival circuit, then purchased and distributed.

It won’t be just Chris and Ryan and their stories on film, it’s about the community.

“We have something really special,” said Chris.

The stories of these two are timely and relevant, speaking directly to the human experience — the power of kindness and community, the importance of striving towards goals, and how that helps you manage through the darkest times.

Chris and Ryan, each with their own massive challenges, could be labeled ‘underdogs’ but through the film, we realize they transcend labels. Ryan is not defined by his amputation but thrives as a competitor, a Heavyweight Para-Division gold medalist, and mentor. Chris is not defeated by his injuries or grief. He uses his scars and loss as a motivation to become a new, better version of himself.

Know when to pick your battles. But, what happens when the fight picks you.

All contributions are tax-deductible, and donations can fall into different categories allowing the donator to be a special part of the final project.

To donate and find out more, visit https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/momentum-documentary#/.

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