It’s been fifteen years and 19 days since my life changed and I was thrust into a new world. While riding my bike I was hit head on by a car and paralyzed from the chest down, requiring a wheelchair for mobility. As I emerged from the cloud of confusion that such a life change brings, I reignited my passion for sports. Luckily for me I had many resources for learning adaptive sports, and grants available to afford the high cost of the equipment. But looking around for other women like me, competing in the world of adaptive athletics who I could look up to and learn from, was like going on a scavenger hunt with no clues. I didn’t find these women online or in magazines and certainly not on TV. I didn’t know there was a small group out there who were competing in sports from basketball to road racing, tennis, golf and more. I had no idea that there was a whole new world (regardless of how small) for me to explore. And although I had the technical help from my recreational therapists at the rehab hospital, I didn’t have role models.
When I was in high school, I was a gymnast. I lived and breathed the sport. I had been doing it since I was seven years old, but as a teenager, I dreamed of competing at the college level and I threw myself into each and every workout to reach my goal. Even standing at 5’ 10” I wasn’t deterred, though I should have known I was better suited for the basketball court or track. Still, when the 1984 Olympics came around, I was literally obsessed with the U.S. women’s gymnastics team. I had Mary Lou Retton, and the rest of the team’s photos taped to my bedroom wall. I set the VCR to record every time there was a televised meet leading up to the Games. And when the Olympics rolled around, I was on the couch watching every competition. Whether or not I would continue to compete in gymnastics, these girls gave me a reason to dream—to believe that I could be an athlete. That it could enrich my life, teach me self-esteem and confidence, and give me goals for which to aspire.
When I got out of the hospital in January 2001 after my accident, I missed that kind of guidance. Sure I could turn on the TV and occasionally see women’s sports, but it wasn’t the same. I was different. I could watch Mia Hamm running around the soccer field or see Michelle Kwan jumping and twirling in the air, but those were things my body would never be able to do (to be fair, I couldn’t even ice skate in my able-bodied years). For the first time, I didn’t have anyone to look up to who could show me that I could return to my former self, as a confident, talented and hard working athlete.
Fast forward fifteen years and I’ve met dozens of female athletes who have disabilities as I do. They also have that fierce drive and competitiveness, and spend their free time training instead of going to the movies or hanging out with friends, aspiring to be the best in they can be. My post-accident athletic career was encouraged by the likes of Candace Cable, Muffy Davis and Jean Driscoll who were all at the top of their sports around the time of my injury. Unfortunately, despite their miles of accomplishments, their names are not bantered around like the Mias Mary Lous and Michelles of the world.
Sports for athletes with disabilities continue to be a mystery to most people. Coverage in the media has definitely taken a huge leap since I was injured in 2000, but there are too many talented young athletes coming up through the ranks to keep adaptive sports a secret. These athletes who train as hard as their able-bodied counterparts and accomplish amazing feats, deserve their moments in the spotlight. And to not be broadcasting the names of these athletes equally as we hear about Serena, Lindsey and Danica today is to do both them and inclusive women’s athletics a disservice.
To change that, She’s Got Grit is a new web series to begin the conversation about women in adaptive athletics. To introduce the concept of what it truly means to be an athlete with a disability, the grit and strength it takes to succeed and finally profiles of the women who are leading the pack today. We look forward to bringing you these episodes so that you can be enlightened, excited and interested in a whole new way of looking at high level athletics.