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April 24, 2019

Unwavering Grit

 

Last month I sat down and read “Grit” by Angela Duckworth again – her findings on the relation between talent and performance, her conversation of deliberate performance and the journey of finding passion, is one that sparked reflection of my own journey.

 

My greatest passions took time to develop, they didn’t develop as a result of success, they have been fostered with time, fueled by interest. Prior to my paralysis I grew up a swimmer, I began to compete at the age of 7 and swam varsity all four years of high school, serving as captain my senior year. Although, I never made it to State – my passion was fueled off of my love for the sport, not success. After 23 years of identifying as a swimmer and over a decade of that spent in the Para Swimming world my passion is still fueled by love rather than success. Yes, I am a Paralympic Gold Medalist, a two-time Paralympian, dreaming for a third Games in Tokyo and a chance to sit atop the podium again – but this journey didn’t start because I jumped in a pool and started winning, this journey started because I jumped in a pool and started to love. Now, I find motivation in the challenge that comes with trying to become a better version of myself today then I was yesterday. I find motivation in identifying where my weaknesses lie and showing up tomorrow and trying to improve, I find motivation in my fascination of seeing the incredible power that comes in our bodies ability to adapt to its circumstance and redefine possibilities. I find motivation in the challenge of not just putting the hours in but being intentional, making sure I am deliberate in my training rather then just showing up and going through the motions. I find motivation in knowing that grit has nothing to do with the speed in which we reach our dreams, but rather that despite the setbacks, road blocks and detours, we still show up – in fact it is because of them that we show up and keep at it, knowing the gratification that comes in not giving in, staying persistent in the pursuit of our dreams. I find motivation in knowing that I have been a swimmer for 23 years and I haven’t even scratched the surface of my potential, because regardless of how high we climb we can always climb higher.

 

When I look at my own journey I realize that for each passion there is a story of growth – our interests take time to develop into a passion, they take intention, nurturing and after years, maybe, just maybe, we begin to find a flow – something that looks effortless because we have nurtured it with deliberate practice day in and day out.

 

In high school many of us have to take a speech class of some sort, for me speaking in front of others was never something that felt comfortable. I ended my high school speech class with a “C” – I often scored poorly in other classes where participation in the classroom was scored based on raising your hand and contributing to the conversation – nothing about speaking amongst my peers felt natural. Following my paralysis I learned that it was important to find my voice, as I was now living life with a circumstance that if I couldn’t find my own voice, no one would give it to me. Finding my voice lead to an interest in how to communicate my story and the impact my experiences could have on others. In the past 15 years I went from getting a “C” in high school speech class to becoming a motivational speaker for a living. My speaking career didn’t come naturally, it stemmed from my interest in learning to find my own voice after an incredibly traumatic experience and then was fueled by my purpose of wanting to make a difference in the world around me. Now today, my speaking is something that although I am incredibly deliberate with, making sure I am authentic, vulnerable and in tune with each audience, it also just flows – it feels natural. Each stage I take I feel a calmness, as each speech feels like a discussion – a conversation of the stories we each carry and our ability to find the power that our circumstance carries rather then feel succumbed by our circumstance.

 

So in the end, is it talent that leads to success? Or is it grit? I have been complimented on my talents, whether it be as an athlete or a speaker, but I like to think that my success is rather a result of nurturing my passion, being deliberate in my performance, staying persistent in the pursuit of my dreams – frankly, I think talent has very little to do with it.  Even those who have mastered their respective crafts in a way that they look effortless, they are anything but – they have been executed hundreds of thousands of times when no one has been watching, they have been challenged by failure and after hundreds of thousands of hours of being intentional, of falling 7 times and choosing to get up 8, of showing up day in and day out despite the challenges before them, of choosing to be persistent in the pursuit of their dreams, realizing that grit is a test of time – it is then that we can look in from the outside and compliment their perceived “talent” when in reality what we are witnessing is the success that comes on the other side of unwavering grit.

January 16, 2019

Dare to Dream

 

I have always believed in the power of goal setting – of sitting down and putting a pen to paper, writing down my goals.  At all times, I have a set of three different goals.  The first being my high in the sky goal, my ultimate goal if you will – this helps serve as my guiding compass for the goals that follow.  The next are my “long term” goals, these goals are ones that serve as a stepping stone for my ultimate goal.  Then the final set of goals are my short-term goals, my here and now, my baby steps that eventually add up and bring me to my long-term goals.  Many of us have heard the quote, “a goal is a dream with a plan” – this is my way of creating a road map for where it is that I want to go, it is my way of dreaming with a plan.  Although the challenge is this, the ultimate goal – it may not always be met and guess what, that’s okay! The high in the sky goal, should be just that, it should be your big dream – your dream so big that it scares you.  I have found that when we are willing to put ourselves out there, when we are willing to dream what many may say is the impossible, it is then that we find ourselves breaking the perceived glass ceiling. Although, on the flip side when we dream safe, when we set our ultimate goal as something that we know is a given, that inevitability actually limits us.

 

Goal setting can be an intimidating process, typically that intimidation stems from the fear of failure. We are all human and this idea of failure creeps in for all of us at various times in our lives.  Although, I have found that the only true failure is in not allowing ourselves to dream in the first place.  Allowing our fear of failure to intimidate us to the point that we just don’t allow ourselves to set goals at all, or worse we set safe goals, self-limiting ourselves before we have even begun – to me that is a greater failure then the willingness to not only dream, but create a road map of goals to get there and give ourselves the chance to see how far we can go, even if we never reach the ultimate goal.  Not all goals in life will be met, and that is okay, but we must not allow those short comings to prevent us from dreaming in the first place.

 

Going into the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games I had a period of time following my arm injury in 2014 where I was afraid to dream, setting goals felt intimidating and I was all consumed with this fear of failure.  That very fear almost caused me to give up on the one thing I love most, my swimming. Fortunately, I have an incredible community that surrounds me, a community who reminded me what it looks like to dream, a community who reminded me that the only way to see where you can go is to allow yourself to dream in the first place. So, I started with those short-term goals, I started with baby steps, each day and worked towards my long-term goal of returning to competition which brought me one step closer to my ultimate goal, Gold at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.  Now, for those of you who know how this story turned out you know that I didn’t win Gold in Rio, in fact I didn’t medal at all in Rio.  Although, what I did find in Rio is that although I feel short of my ultimate goal, I in no way failed.  I learned that by allowing myself to stop fearing failure and begin dreaming again I not only was able to return to what I love most, but I was able to see it through – it was because I allowed myself to dream big that I even made it to the Rio Paralympics in the first place.  It was my willingness to set that high in the sky ultimate goal that allowed me to see just how far I could go, which although didn’t result in a medal, it did result in the competition of a lifetime – one I almost gave up on.

So often we view the outcome of our goals and dreams as black and white, you fail or you succeed, but it isn’t that simple.  Our successes and failures are not based on a single outcome, they come in the journey. Here we are in 2019 and sure enough, somehow, just like that the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games are next year.  I still remember the feeling I had at the Rio 2016 Closing Ceremonies when the torch was handed off to Tokyo – I remember the very moment my next big, scary dream was born.  A dream that at many times over the past two and a half years has felt out of reach, a dream that has required some of the most seemingly simple baby steps, but one that none the less a dream that I have refused to give up on because I learned in Rio that failure is not something to fear.  Who knows if I will reach this next high in the sky goal, but I have learned that you never know unless you put yourself out there, unless you are willing to start at the bottom just for a chance to see how far you can climb.

So, as I dream, as I put my road map of goals in place, as they evolve with each baby step, I am learning that some of the greatest strides come in 1% increments. So, embrace the 1%, don’t rush past it because you are always looking for the big strides. As they say, Rome wasn’t built a day, neither are we – nor are our dreams.  So, dream big, allow your dreams to be so grand that they scare you, but be sure to embrace the 1% along the way, embrace each baby step and every stepping stone it takes to get there and know that short comings, they aren’t failures, the only true failure is never dreaming in the first place.  So here, is my big scary dream – I want to sit atop a podium in 2020 at the Tokyo Paralympic Games as a member of Team USA, I want to hear our national anthem play and see our flag raise high.  It has been 7 years since I won Gold at the 2012 Paralympic Games and every day since I have dreamed of the chance to make it back there.  Since then I have fallen and I have climbed my way back up and each time I have held onto that ultimate dream – focusing on 1% at a time.

Now the question is, what is your big, scary dream? What is your ultimate goal? And what roadmap will you put in place to get there?

September 24, 2018

Comeback 2.0 – My Journey to Tokyo

It has officially been a full two years since the Rio 2016 Paralympic  Games – on September 17, 2016 I raced in my final race of the Rio Games and as I left the pool deck that evening I could have never imagined the journey that would follow.   A lot has happened since Rio, most notably the fact that I am now a wife,  although unfortunately our first year and a half of marriage has definitely tested the “through sickness and in health” part of our vows.

(We got married on December 30, 2016 and it was possibly the most magical day of our lives – being surrounded by all of our loved ones was more than we could have ever dreamed of.  It also included a very special “walk” down the aisle both with my father and than with Jeremy as we walked arm in arm as husband and wife.)

As many know, in 2014 I had a fairly catastrophic injury to my left arm, a horrific fall that resulted in permanent nerve damage.  The year following my injury the “r” word (retirement) was thrown around, but ultimately due to the constant love and support from my parents, now husband and my coach – the very people that kept my dream of Rio alive even when I couldn’t, I made a comeback and made it to my second Paralympic Games in all 7 individual events.  Although I didn’t return home two years ago with any medals in tow, I came home with so much more – an unwavering love for a sport that has given me so much throughout my life and the sense of peace you only get when you know that there isn’t anything you could have done to change the outcome.  The Rio 2016 Paralympic Games became my symbol of what success truly looks like, redefining traditional thinking and challenging the idea that as an athlete medals and records are what define our success.  For me, I quickly learned that a medal doesn’t measure the heart, grit or determination and a medal certainly isn’t an accurate way to measure the journey. The journey to Rio taught me so many vital lessons and it solidified that I don’t swim because I love to win, I swim because I truly just simply love to swim.

 

As I sat at Closing Ceremonies in Rio I allowed myself to do exactly what I did in London during Closing Ceremonies, reflect not only on the journey it took to get there, but also allow myself to dream about what comes next.  I left Rio with many dreams and Tokyo 2020 was definitely at the top of the list, along with getting married and at some point beginning a family along this journey. Although, I never anticipated what the past two years has brought.  I was completely pulled from the water for over a year and during that time I went through a battery of tests, procedures and appointments – in many ways it felt like I watched as my body changed on what felt like a daily basis before my own eyes.  In June of 2017 we finally made the decision to go through with surgery in hopes of halting the progression and getting me one step closer to not only returning to the pool, but also regaining my quality of life.  It wasn’t an easy journey, I spent two weeks in the hospital, however each night I fell asleep with my husband by my side in a cot – my parents where there beside us every step of the way and collectively we fought for months to regain my strength before I ultimately went in for my second surgery in December of 2017.

     

(Just days following my first surgery – this journey has become incredibly humbling as I literally had to start over following my surgery.)

I celebrated the New Year of 2018 embracing two new “beauty marks” – marks that represent not only this journey, but the fight it has taken – they represent the abdominal spirit to never give up, even in the darkest of moments.  I have said it before, but the reality is this injury has challenged me in ways that not even my paralysis did, however, during it all I never lost sight of my dream to return to competition and make a run at what could become my third Paralympic Games.  For weeks when I was bed ridden following my surgeries I would literally day dream of the water, visualize my swimming and come up with the simplest of goals that could serve as baby steps to get me one step closer to returning to the water – starting with the simple act of being able to bear weight on my arm again.

I started 2018 knowing this comeback would take everything I had, not just physically but mentally – forcing me to have patience like never before and trust the process, regardless of how slow it has felt at times. I started back in the water in January with about 15 minutes at a time, once a week and slowly built from there – focusing on fundamentals, regaining my feel for the water and just mentally allowing myself to heal.

    

(PT and Recovery has become a vital part of the process as I rehab back to my daily living and my swimming – it has been all about baby steps)

It has been a journey of one day at a time, week by week and here I am today and I can officially say I am back to competition – I have a long journey a head of me although I have learned one vital lesson – we must be willing to start at the bottom in order to give ourselves a chance to rise to the top.  Allowing ourselves to start in the first place can be the most challenging part of any journey, our fear of failure kicks in and suddenly we become more preoccupied by the idea of failing and letting others down than we do with simply letting go and allowing ourselves to start in the first place.

 

Last weekend as I raced in my first race back since the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, racing nearly two years to the date since my last race, I did so with my husband and my parents by my side – the very people that literally held my hand as I went in for my surgeries and were there when I woke and this past weekend, there they were – yet again, by my side.  I cannot say it enough, we are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with and I am beyond lucky to have one heck of a tribe – a husband who has been by myside for every twist and turn holding my hand and cheering me on, my parents who have been my greatest supporters since day one and wrap  their arms around not only myself, but also my husband as we have faced the uncertainty of my injuries, my coach who came into my life at arguably the bottom of my career in 2015 but has believed in me every step of the way, not to mention my coaches wife and three daughters who have been such an integral part of this journey and the rest of my family who has become the greatest cheering section (I mean seriously, you should see their pictures from Rio – they proudly wore the red, white and blue), my friends, sponsors and greater community and of course my fur baby, Sam – I couldn’t ask for a better tribe as I make my second comeback and go for my third Paralympic Games!

 

         

 

Oh, and as for the starting a family conversation that is on the long list of dreams – our fur baby Sam will fill that space until following Tokyo – I mean, look at this face – he definitely deserves some time as an “only child” for a bit!

 

November 19, 2017

Utilizing the Power of Sport to Change Perception of Disability

 


Sean Berry Photography

Nearly a decade ago I became a member of the disability community, a community that at the time I knew nothing about.  I didn’t know the first thing about what living life with a spinal cord injury looked like, although sadly my initial assumption of what my future would look like, looked nothing like the life I have lived.  Instantly I made assumptions of what my future would hold, as I was surrounded by the perception that living with a disability meant that I was now incapable of doing certain things.  I sat back as my mind wandered to all the inherent limits that would now be placed on me.  I didn’t look to my future as limitless, sadly I saw the wheelchair beside me and I saw road block after road block.  Although, nearly a decade later I wish I could go back and ask myself “why?”  Why was I so quick to limit myself? Why at such a young age was I so quick to cap my own potential not only for what I could be, but the life that I would live?

We live in a world with nearly a seventh of our population living with a disability. In the United States that number rises to one out of every five people, yet in the disability community our employment rate is bleak. We still have to fight that disability rights are human rights and accessibility within our communities is often an afterthought.  As someone who is inherently curious I find myself asking “why?” but as someone who is always looking to find a solution I also find myself looking for the “how?” So, how do we change the way we as a society not only perceive disability, but also how do we change how we integrate disability into a greater role in our society?

I may be totally off base; however, I believe that the way we achieve this is through sport.  As a Paralympian, I have watched as sport has impacted my own life, the impact sport has had on my community and the power the Paralympic Movement holds to debunk the perception of disability, flip it upside down and create greater inclusion in our society.  Paralympic sport showcases incredible athleticism, it proves that if there is a will, then there is a way and most of all it showcases in the most powerful way possible that individuals living with “disabilities” are in no way “disabled.” If we can create greater inclusion on the field of play, especially in our youth programs, we will ultimately watch that inclusion transcend into our communities.  We will see perception take a shift in our most impressionable population and we will watch as our youth of today move off the field of play and into the classroom, as they grow into young adults and ultimately as they become our leaders of tomorrow.  By focusing on greater inclusion in youth sport we will see the tides turn.  Inclusion on the field of play will begin to transcend sport and enter our communities, changing perception of what disability looks like in our society and ultimately creating greater social inclusion in our communities, schools and the work force.

Now the question is how? How do we create greater inclusion on the field of play? We make sport accessible to all, no matter their race, gender, zip code, financial means or ability.  We do it in two ways.  First, we create grassroots programs in our communities that provide not only opportunity to all our youth, but bridge the gap.  We hold adaptive sport camps that allow a child with an impairment to bring their friend who possibly doesn’t have an impairment so they can play a game of wheelchair basketball together.  We make it known that all children are welcome at a local soccer clinic, regardless of ability and rather the dividing our youth, we adapt our programming.  By immersing our youth in a world of inclusion, we are able to change their perception before they even begin to form perceptions.

Then, secondly, in a world that has instant access to content, we flood the market with content that bridges that gap.  We utilize the power of media to create content that challenges the perception of disability in our society.  We need to create powerful role models for our youth, role models that represent all walks of life, role models that encourage inclusion and show every youth the potential of their future – media has the power to do that.

This isn’t a small feat, it is a fight many have fought for years, but it is my hope that as our next generation grows a future “Mallory” will see a world of possibilities before them, rather than the world of limitations that I saw.  It is my hope that we will see the perception of disability in our society change, we will watch as the tides shift and access for all will be the first priority, not the afterthought, we will watch as employment rates not only rise but we will see individuals in the disability community hold executive positions, seats in office and roles in our media. No child, adolescent or adult for that matter should feel limited due to their perceived limitations, we must create a society of inclusion that fosters growth not only for the lucky few but for all.

 

 

 

 

 

September 26, 2017

LIVING with a Spinal Cord Injury

 

It is still hard to believe that I have been living with a spinal cord injury for nearly ten years now, that day is still ingrained in my memory like it was yesterday, although it often feels that my life before was a lifetime ago. But, it is true, I have been LIVING with a spinal cord injury, although no one signs up for this life.  You never in a million years think that this could be you, however the moment it becomes a part of your life you do just that, you pick up the pieces, you move on and you continue living.

For me it took time to come back to life, there is a period of time following my injury that I was simply going through the motions, I was treading water fighting with all my might to simply keep my head up and then it was like a switch flipped and finally I started to move forward.  I realized that it was okay to move on. For a while I felt that moving on would symbolize I had given up, I felt this pressure that I had to fight to walk again.  Following my injury, I felt like society looked at me as broken, as someone that needed to be fixed and that recovering from a spinal cord injury meant one thing and one thing only, walking.  I fought my body day in and day out and I simply couldn’t get traction until one day when I made the decision to stop fighting and start living.  I still remember the weeks going into my decision to step away from my therapies, part of me felt guilty, I worried that this would mean I had given up, but other parts of me knew this is the only way I could truly begin fighting for myself.  I had to find a way to allow myself to move on, to build a life and trust that everything happens for a reason.  It took time for me to recover following my spinal cord injury but here I sit, nearly 10 years later and I have reached a full recovery.  My recovery has nothing to do with my physically mobility, as I have a permanent spinal cord injury, my recovery is about the emotional healing that took place, the process of letting go and moving forward, learning to replace my feelings of hate and anger with love and forgiveness, even for some of the most unforgiveable actions possible, but my journey to forgiveness wasn’t for them, it was for me.  It took years, it took realizing that there was no number of medals, records or accolades that could bring me closure, I had to find a way to give that to myself.

I will never stand up and walk in the way that I did 10 years ago and that is okay, because the reality is my four wheels have taken me more places than my two legs ever did.  I feel it must be said; my spinal cord injury doesn’t define me, it is a part of me but it in no way defines who I am.  I am a wife, a woman dreaming of becoming a mother, a daughter, sister and friend.  I am a proud Paralympic athlete, speaker, writer, advocate and entrepreneur. I also happen to be living with a spinal cord injury. I live a fulfilling life, one that contributes to our society, to my community and one that isn’t defined by the four wheels that get me about on a daily basis.  My wheelchair doesn’t mean I gave up, it doesn’t mean that I didn’t try hard enough, or that I am lazy, it doesn’t imply a lack of faith, it is simply my circumstance and it serves as my vehicle to carry out my dreams and live a fulfilling life.

This is just a small glimpse into my journey, however there are millions of individuals living in our communities with spinal cord injuries. We are your mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, neighbors, friends, colleagues and fellow human beings.  So, in honor of Spinal Cord Injury Awareness month we must come together to challenge perception of what living with a spinal cord injury looks like.  We must use our voices to continue the fight for inclusion, stop discrimination dead in its tracks and educate.  We must continue the fight for equality, equal access to employment opportunities and representation in the media.  We must fight for the next generation, because the reality is we are a part of a larger community, we are a part of the disability community and disability rights are human rights.

Blog was also published on Huffington Post

March 23, 2017

My Bridal Moment

As I look back to this past year, the journey that my husband and I have taken together and the individual growth it has resulted in, I found this journal that I wrote just over a year ago.  It may sound simple but the process of finding my wedding dress was one that opened a lot of old scares, one that shed light on so many emotions that I have had for years.  This journal is about that journey for me, the process of getting to a place where I finally loved myself enough to truly love another and accept that love as well.

 

March 16, 2016

MalloryandJeremy_00423In that moment I stood there, in front of the mirror, standing on my own two feet.  Sure underneath the dress I had on leg braces that braced me all the way from my toes to my hips, but in that moment I felt more beautiful than I have ever felt.  I saw myself standing there in a beautiful white gown and all I could think of is the moment when I get to walk arm and arm down the aisle with my dad towards a man that is so much more than I ever could have dreamed of.

As I stood there with two of my close friends by my side and my mom I felt like everything I thought I would never have was coming together in that moment.  My girl friends were looking at accessories, the owner of the bridal boutique was picking out veils and my mom was taking pictures, and I, I was just standing there, staring into this beautiful oversized mirror and my world just stopped.

MalloryandJeremy_00411It took me years to feel beautiful, years to feel comfortable, to feel girly, sexy, elegant, graceful and even once I found the ability to feel all of that I never knew if I would truly be able to feel like a bride.  After my paralysis I found myself missing the simple moments of my past and longing for the moments of my future that I felt were now unreachable.  The top of that list was someday getting married.  For years I didn’t know if I would ever be able to find that kind of love, the type that has no barriers, the type of love that knows no boundaries, that loves fearlessly.  It took me years to love myself again after my injury and I didn’t know if I would ever find that type of love with someone, my biggest fear was that no one would ever be able to embrace my past, yet also see me for more than my past.

Now here I am and I have found a man that is everything I could have ever dreamed of, everything I thought I would never find and more than all of that.  He makes me feel beautiful, empowered, loved, cared for, he makes my wheelchair just magically disappear yet at the same time I know loves me for my wheelchair and the person I am with and without it.  He is a man that has made my every wish, hope and dream come true.

So as I stood there, in my leg braces with my wheelchair on the other side of the room and I realized not only have I found an incredible man to share my life with but on our wedding day I will be able to do the one thing I never thought I would get to do, I will get to walk down the aisle as I become his wife, I finally felt the one thing I never knew if I would feel… I felt like a bride.  As I looked in the mirror I felt elegant and graceful, I had a dress on that was timeless and classic… I looked behind me to see a beautiful train with a veil that dropped down my back and I realized that on December 30th everything I have ever wished for and more will come true as I walk down the aisle to marry a man that is my every dream come true.

 

 

 

 

March 13, 2017

My Life Over The Black Line

As I lifted one foot at a time into the water, I sat on the edge of the pool with my wheelchair behind me and my father, coach and two former teammates standing within an arm’s length.  I looked onto the water in front of me, I sat with my hands gripping to the side of the pool and my feet dangling in the water.  Although, as I sat there I found myself consumed with fear.  It had been exactly 78 days since that fateful day on Martin Luther King Jr. day, a day that changed my life in ways I could have never expected.  I was just 18 years old, I graduated high school eight months prior and due to complications of an epidural injection that I was receiving for back pain, I became paralyzed.  Every question possible for my future came rushing in, it felt like my life was sent into a spiral and I couldn’t catch any traction.

Having been a lifelong competitive swimmer I found myself back at the pool on April 8, 2008 and as I sat on the edge of the pool deck my fears took hold.  Moments later I took my leap of faith, I pushed off the side of the pool deck and left my wheelchair behind.  Within four or five strokes that very black line I grew up following felt like home again, my wheelchair was left behind and I was moving forward, I was in control.  In that moment I felt safe, I felt comfort and for the first time in 78 days I felt at peace.  While my life outside of the water was still filled with uncertainty in that moment, that black line was my constant, it was my solace.

My life over the black line has taught me how to find peace and healing, how to hope and dream, how to love and be loved, how to take control and ultimately it has taught me how to fight back.  Following my paralysis on January 21, 2008 I had two choices, I could fall victim to my circumstance or I could pull myself up and move forward, thankfully I chose the later.  From day one I have refused to allow my paralysis to make me a victim, I believe we only fall victim if we choose to and I knew that I had too much life to live to allow my injury to victimize me, so I began to fight and the black line became my battle field.

Swimming has never been about winning, in fact as a kid my parents would joke with my sisters and I and tell us “just don’t get last” and then if we did, if we were smiling, they didn’t care.  Swimming in our house has always been built off a love for the water, a love for the sport and for me a love for the greater swimming community.  It has served as my safe haven my entire life, no matter what life has brought throughout my 20-year career, I have always known that the black line will always be there. It is over that very line, no matter what pool that I have found hope, courage, peace, forgiveness and strength.  I haven’t solved the world’s problems following that line, but I certainly have solved my own.  I have mended heartbreak, celebrated the greatest triumphs and mourned the deepest of loss following that line, and it has always been there for me all the same.

There is a sense of peace knowing that whether I find myself over the black line in a moment of uncertainty looking for clarity, or whether I find myself over the black line with my coach at the end of the lane pushing me with each passing set to become the best athlete I can become, that it is always there all the same with each stroke. Following my paralysis in 2008 I literally watched myself come back to life while following that line, I built a career over that line and as a result I have had the honor of represent Team USA at countless international competitions.  I have competed at two Paralympic Games, I have had the honor of sitting atop the podium and hearing our national anthem play and seeing our flag raise, but the greatest honor I have had in my career is to have witnessed countless times the power of sport first hand. There is something so incredibly humbling knowing that in our greatest moments of success, it is about so much more than ourselves.

So here is to the black line that taught me how to live, that has brought me back to life in my darkest of moments, a place that has served as my constant through all the twists and turns of life and above all a place that has taught me how to love with a deep-rooted level of respect. I am who I am because of that black line and it is because of that very line that I have not only lived but I am alive.

 

 

September 26, 2016

A New Dream is Born

A week ago yesterday I swam in my very last race of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, the 200m IM.  Over the past 7 days I have been searching for a way to put into words how I feel following the conclusion of these Games.  I still haven’t been able to grasp that it is over.  I dreamt of the Rio 2016 Games since I sat in London for the Closing Ceremonies of the London 2012 Games, that very night a dream was born, my dream for the Rio 2016 Games.  I knew leaving London that although I was proud of my accomplishments, I wanted more, I strived for more.

Now, here I am and Rio has come and gone.  These Games took more fight to get to and to get through than anything I have experienced in my career.  The road to Rio was one filled with many twists and turns, one filled with more hardship than I would have liked at times, but also one filled with more life and love than I could have ever hoped for.  It is amazing how much life happens in four years, while you sit and focus on the next Games life continues on, it doesn’t have a pause button while you chase your dream, it continues on and throws you your fair share of ups and downs along the way.

As I sit here I find myself reflecting on the journey it took to get to Rio, the grit it took to make it through Rio and most of all I find myself content, satisfied and proud of what I left in Rio.  As I sit here today, I can say with all that I am that I left everything I had, every ounce of my being, every last bit of fight I had in me, I left all of it in that pool in Rio.  I didn’t come home a medalist from these Games, in fact this is my very first international competition that I have returned empty handed.  Although, this is the very first competition in my career that I have returned from that I don’t have a single doubt, that I don’t have a single second guess or what if.  I know that not only did I leave everything I had in that pool, but I also know that I did absolutely everything I could going into Rio.

This journey was one filled with its fair share of uncertainty.  Following my arm injury, I didn’t know if it was possible to compete again, let alone make it to Rio.  The other day I was asked why returning following injury was so important to me, my answer was simple, I owed it to myself to see my dream through, I never wanted to look back and feel like I had given up on my dreams.  So, for the past two years we did just that, we poured everything we had into this dream of mine and now, as I sit here I can proudly say that I have had the honor of representing Team USA at two Paralympic Games making me a two time Paralympian.

I swam 7 individual events in Rio, a program that I never thought I would swim again and I fought my way to finals in 4 of the 7 events.  Throughout competition I learned in one of the hardest ways possible that what my mind and heart want so badly, my body may not physically be capable of.  I have never had a competition take so much out of me mentally and emotionally, and I have never given so much physically.  On day one following my 400 Free prelim I lost feeling and movement in my entire left arm, I was terrified, this wasn’t how competition was supposed to begin. I spent the day in sports med trying to regain control of my arm, trying to regain movement as I was looking towards my 100m Fly the following day.  I didn’t touch the water following my 400 Free, not even to cool down, I couldn’t, I couldn’t even wheel myself let alone swim.  By the following day I was able to get control and feeling back and I swam my 100 Fly in one of the best times in my career.  My mind, my heart, every ounce of me refused to let me body give up.  Each day was a fight with my own body, some were more successful than others, but regardless I never stopped, I never gave up, I fought.  It is that fight, that determination, the will and passion that make me proud.  I may not have returned to the States a Paralympic medalist from these Games but I have learned that there is far more to the journey than medals.

Following the London 2012 Paralympic Games I returned home a Gold and Bronze medalist and although I am proud of those medals, I do not think I have had a moment in my career where I have been more proud of myself than I was following my race last week, a race that I placed 5th in.  Medals don’t define performance, they don’t define the fight, or the journey… Having been on both sides, medalist and non medalist I can say that regardless of the medal there is nothing that beats going a personal best time, a time that I haven’t even gotten close to since 2010, a time I have only dreamed about being able to come close to and then looking up, seeing front and center in the front row my family, a row filled with my parents, my fiancé, my sisters, my future mother and father-in-law and my soon to be sister-in-law and then, as I looked over right in front of me was my coach, standing in the aisle in the stands with both hands in the air and tears in his eyes.  That moment, it cannot be defined by a medal because there is no medal that makes that feeling, right then any better than it already was.

So here I am, following my second Paralympic Games and no, I am not a medalist from these Games but that doesn’t matter, it might to the rest of the world, but for me I have finally realized that my career isn’t defined by medals, it is defined by the fight, the heart, the passion, the grit, the determination, the journey and most of all, the community, the very people that gave me the courage and strength to fight for this dream in the first place.  Now, as I reflect on Rio, a new dream is born, my dream of Tokyo 2020 and the best part of this dream is it isn’t predicated on what color medal I want to win in Tokyo, this dream is about the journey.  Like I said, while we sit back and focus on our dreams life continues on and as badly as I want to make this dream come true, I also want to enjoy life. I want to enjoy marrying my best friend in December, I want to travel the world, I want to build my career outside of the pool, I want to  start a family and yes, I want to become a 3 time Paralympian!  The beauty is, who is to say you can’t do it all and enjoy the journey along the way?

April 25, 2016

I #LoveMyShape Because It’s Mine

Last week I had the opportunity to be a part of the #LoveMyShape social media campaign that SHAPE Magazine put together and while I was thinking about what it is that I love about my shape, it got me thinking about the journey it took to get me to this point.

We all have insecurities, self-confidence issues and feeling less than beautiful at times. We shame our bodies, call out more often what we hate than what we love about them and are quick to have the need to start a new “diet” or workout plan to “fix” our bodies. My question is for what though? At what point do we cross over from the need to go to the gym because we are trying to “fix” our bodies, to going to the gym simply because we love our bodies?

I was paralyzed over 8 years ago at the age of 18, I was just two months shy from my 19th birthday and one of the biggest struggles I had following my injury was learning how to feel beautiful again, learning to love my body. After my injury I felt like a deer in headlights everywhere I went, I went from this bubbly, outgoing individual, to someone that felt timid, insecure and incredibly uncomfortable in social settings. It was a difficult realization when I realized that as I went about my daily life, I felt different from everyone around me. You don’t wheel around and run into individuals in wheelchairs everywhere you go; I felt different and honestly, I felt out numbered. I was trying to find my confidence again, but it was hard because there weren’t individuals around me I could look to, I didn’t see individuals with physical impairments in magazines, I didn’t see individuals with physical impairments in our entertainment industry, everywhere I looked I realized I didn’t have anyone I could look to as a role model that “looked” like me.

As I adjusted to life in a wheelchair, I worked on rebuilding my self confidence, I returned to competitive swimming, was named to the US National team, had gone back to school and built back my independence, but it still took time before I felt comfortable, before I could feel beautiful. I remember about a year and a half after my paralysis my mom and I went dress shopping for a dress for an event I had, it was my first time dress shopping following my injury and as I sat in the dressing room at the store I found myself in tears as I looked in the mirror. I felt like nothing fit right sitting down, instead of feeling beautiful, I felt frumpy. I used to stand at 5’ 9” and weighed all of 115 pounds and now I sat, my body had changed and I felt uncomfortable in my own skin. We have all had those moments in our lives though, our bodies have changed, and we have felt insecure, less than beautiful. Although, over the years I have learned that when we embrace our difference, when we learn to love our bodies, “flaws” and all that, it is what makes us beautiful. The reality is if we shame and blame our bodies, name our flaws more than our features, no matter what we do to become that image we have in our mind of what “beauty” is, we will never feel beautiful, because it will never be enough. Being beautiful and loving our bodies is learning to celebrate our features, learning the love the very things that make us unique and being happy with who we are.

So as I sat in the gym last week and had my fiancé take a photo of me in a sports bra that said #LoveMyShape, I realized that what I love most about my shape is the very things many might consider “imperfections.” I love my wheels, I may not stand at 5’ 9” but I don’t need to, honestly I feel more beautiful in my wheelchair than I ever felt standing on my own two feet. I love the journey my body has taken me on, the story it tells and the places it has taken me and will continue to take me. Our bodies are more than an image; they are the vehicles that carry us to chase our dreams. I #LoveMyShape because it is mine, it is unique to me and I believe that very uniqueness is what makes us all so incredibly beautiful! Above all I #LoveMyShape because I want my future children to grow up in a world where they are celebrated for who they are, not what they look like, where the future generation can have role models of all shapes and sizes, a world that is inclusive and there doesn’t have to be celebration because we have embraced “plus size” models or “disabled” models and models are simply that, models, individuals that celebrate all of the differences we carry, without having a label attached to them. So celebrate your features, love your body because it is yours and it is what has gotten you to where you are.

 

 

 

 

March 15, 2016

Journey to Rio 2016 Paralympic Games

We are officially less than 6 months out from the 2016 Paralympic Games and it is hard to put into words the emotion that comes with knowing that a journey that has lasted for years upon years is in its final stages. Following my paralysis in 2008 I literally drowned myself in my swimming, I learned how to move on with my life by going to a pool every day and working towards something that physically forced me to push my body to its ultimate limits. That mentality was my way of fighting back against the stereotypes of what having a “physical disability” means. I felt like I was now seen as someone who physically was incapable and my way of proving otherwise was showing up to the pool and pushing my body as far as I could to become the best athlete I could become, to excel, to push boundaries and barriers of what is possible physically.

Now London has come and gone, believe it or not it has been nearly 4 years since the London 2012 Games and now the Rio 2016 Games are right around the corner. I thought going into London I learned what it took, I learned how to overcome unfavorable circumstance, that I learned how to become comfortable with the uncomfortable and that I learned how to push my body. Although in 2014 the unexpected happened, I suffered a severe arm injury to my left arm, resulting in significant loss of function in my arm due to nerve damage, which has since been deemed permanent. My world shattered, I didn’t know if I could fight back from this, I feared that I would be forced to say goodbye to the world of competitive swimming and hang my suit up. Although, after months of being out of the pool and battling the uncertainties I found myself back in the same place I was in after my paralysis, going back to the water for solace, returning to my sanctuary.

The idea of coming to terms with now having permanent loss of function in my arm was more than I could handle, but each day I went to the pool it was my way of fighting back. Unfortunately with my nerve damage comes severe nerve pain so every time I touch the water I am faced with unbearable pain, pain that I never even knew existed. Although, as strange as it may sound I felt comfort in the fact that at least I could feel my arm, at least I knew it hurt. To drown out the pain I turned to music and since returning to the pool I now train with music to help me push past the pain.

The journey to the Rio 2016 Games has been an unexpected one, coming back from injury, relearning how to do the simple tasks again as I have lost the grip in my left hand. The trial and error of realizing my arm doesn’t work the way it used to, of learning how to adapt not only my athletic life, but my everyday life as well has been a world of trial and error, a world of ups and downs. But this journey, this journey is about fighting back, about proving that no matter what happens we all have the ability to overcome, about seeing it through not only for myself but those who never, ever stopped believing in me. Many have counted me out, many have said I won’t be able to be the athlete I once was, but every day my body hits the water, every moment I stare at that black line on the bottom of the pool it is me fighting back, proving that if we have enough grit, enough determination and enough passion, anything is possible!