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?

June 01, 2014

Not Allowing Adversity to Define Your Future

Over the past few months I have been dealing with personal struggles after sustaining an injury in March, to say it has been a trying time is most definitely an understatement.  These past three months have continued to test me as a person in ways I haven’t been tested in quite some time.  Since being injured I have had most of my independence taken away, and worst of all it has taken me out of the pool.  Now as an athlete that part in and of itself has been devastating, but aside from my swimming this injury has also broken open wounds that have been healed for quite some time.

At this point we all know how it happened, I walked in and I never walked out.  It was January 21, 2008 and within the blink of an eye my world changed.  Following that day I decided to move forward.  I made the choice to not let this define me and since that day I have for the most part done just that, moved forward.  I created a life for myself, a life not defined by my wheelchair, but unfortunately what I have learned is that once again life has a plan of its own.  At the beginning of March when I sustained my injury despite everything I have done for the past six years it felt like I went right back to square one.  Now that might sound a little dramatic, but in these past six years I have become so incredibly physically strong I literally have moments I forget I am paralyzed, until now.  Since my injury in March I have physically been unable to wheel myself, transfer independently, dress myself, drive, and the list goes on.  My independence has been stripped and though I know it will all come back the waiting, the trial and error, the reminders of just how paralyzed I am has gotten wearing.  However, just like anything in life I am reminded again it isn’t the circumstances that define us, it is how we react to the circumstances that defines who we are.  This is simply a road bump, a moment in time that too will pass.  I will return to the pool, I will continue my journey of training for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games and I will come out stronger then before.

Over the past three months I have had a lot of time to reflect and write.  During that time I have come up with the following list of “tips” if you will for personal growth, because I have realized we all can use a reminder of what is important in life.  No matter how successful we are, no matter what stage of our lives we are in, no matter what path we are on, we all face adversities everyday.  These our my reminders, my pointers for how to insure we are continuing to grow personally, because until we take the time to focus on our personal growth we cannot expect ourselves to grow in the other aspects of our lives.

1.)   Let the past be the past, cherish the memories, learn from the adversities, but in no way live in it.  Move toward the future and allow yourself to simply let go.

2.)   Don’t allow yourself to get so caught up in the future that you lose sight of the present.  Allow yourself to have dreams, goals and ambition, but don’t let them keep you from enjoying the here and now. The journey along the way is what makes the end goal so special, so enjoy it!

3.)   When you get overwhelmed remember, baby steps.  Life is a series of baby steps.  Just like you cannot recite the alphabet without everything in between A-Z, life is the same, and each baby step is a part of the journey so embrace them.

4.)   Remember in any situation, it isn’t the circumstances that define us; it is how we react to them that defines us.

5.)   No matter how hard it gets remember that it can always be worse.  Take the time you need to grieve, but then move forward and remember to be thankful for what you do have.

6.)   Love. Love yourself, find love in the things that you are passionate about, and love another.  The accomplishments in life are gratifying, but what do they mean if you don’t have anyone to share them with? Don’t allow life to wedge itself between you and your loved ones.

7.)   Believe in yourself and allow yourself to hold onto the innocence of your childhood.  Remember that time that we all believed we could be anything and do everything? Don’t let life wear that away, hold onto it and allow yourself to believe anything is possible.

8.)   Give back, as a citizen of the world it is a duty we all have to give back, it is not only a good deed, but it also teaches you a lot about yourself and life in general.

9.)   Allow yourself to continue to learn.  Whether it is a new hobby, learning something new at work, or simply learning something new about a loved one.  Always continue to learn more about yourself, the people around you, and the world you live in.

10.)  Most of all…live your life with passion, heart, free of fear, hate and judgment.  Be courageous, and know that in any given moment you can make a difference and you can change the world.

May 02, 2014

Honoring the Past

honoring-the-past-img

(Billie Jean King, myself, my sister Jessica at the athlete welcome dinner prior to the 2011 Annual Salute to Women in Sports Gala)

I often find myself telling people to let the past be the past.  I encourage people to move towards the future while not losing sight of the present, because unfortunately too many of us get stuck in the past.  However, I strongly believe that we must also always allow ourselves to look back to the past and reflect.  We must reflect on the lessons learned, cherish the memories, and most importantly have an appreciation for our past.  So often we look towards the future and we want more, we dream for better, we wish the present away without even realizing it and in that we lose sight of not only the present, but our past all together.  Our past in no way defines us, it is simply our starting point, but in order to appreciate our future we must always remain humble in our past.

May 2, 1974, the day that Billie Jean King started something that may have in the moment felt like nothing more than a vision for the future, a dream for better, but 40 years later what was started that day has turned into a piece of history for millions of women all around the world.  Now I can’t speak for her as to what motivated her to start the Women’s Sports Foundation, but after meeting her and having the opportunity to be apart of the Annual Salute to Women in Sports three years in a row, I can only imagine that what was started 40 years ago today was just that, a vision for the future, and a dream for better.

As a female athlete myself athletics have shaped me, they have taught me courage, bravery, self-esteem, confidence, and simply put… athletics have built me to be the woman I am today.  Swimming is my main passion as I have swam since I was a little girl, but that is the point, ever since I can remember girls had access to athletics where I grew up.  I swam because I wanted to, because my two older sisters swam and I wanted to follow in their footsteps, but I had choices, I could have played any sport I wanted.  I grew up with access and opportunity to participate in athletics because of individuals like Billie Jean King, and organizations like the Women’s Sports Foundation, but to me it was normal, it was what I knew.  That is why today I am choosing to appreciate the past and look back, because too often we take those opportunities for granted.

I grew up incredibly fortunate, my parents could afford to encourage my sisters and I to participate in athletics, my parents valued the importance of athletics in our lives, and I had access to athletics.  Those are all things that girls all over the country are still fighting for, not to mention the world.  There is still inequality in our lives; professional female athletes are still payed less then male athletes, in certain parts of the country girls are still denied the same access to athletics that boys have, and young girls are faced with the pressures of society.  But, today, it is about appreciating our past, knowing that we are all where we are because somebody that came before us helped pave the road.  It is a humbling moment when you sit back and realize not a single one of us got here alone, the path was paved for us, and now it is up to us to continue to pave the path, not for just ourselves but for the next generation.

So here is a cheers to Billie Jean King, the Women’s Sports Foundation and all of the individuals that continue to inspire, motivate, and advocate for the women of our future.  Wishing the Women’s Sports Foundation a very happy 40th Birthday, and feeling grateful for the courageous women that came before me and have paved the way for myself and millions more to have the opportunities we have.  You have inspired us to do our part to continue to pave the way for the next generation and inspired us to continue dreaming for better for those that follow us.

November 29, 2013

Thankful for the Simple Joys in Life

It is days like yesterday that make me sit back and reflect on the journey we call life.  Yesterday was a day of thanks, a day of remembering, a day of cherishing, and most of all a day of slowing down and remembering to be grateful for the things that are so easy to take for granted in our lives.  I think in life it can be so easy to rush through each day that we forget to slow down amidst all the ciaos and just take it in, it can be so easy to get sidetracked that the beauty that surrounds us gets lost.

So this year as I sit and reflect, as I think about what I am thankful for, it is simple for me, it is life.  I am thankful for all of the hardships, triumphs, adversities, and successes that life has brought throughout the years.  I am thankful for that day back in January of 2008.  Now, you may ask why? But it is simple, it allowed me to not just live but to be alive, it has allowed me to appreciate the simplest joys in life.

There are moments when I sit back and I realize how much I took for granted before my paralysis, how many simple joys I just speed right past and didn’t even think twice about it.  The feeling of my toes in the sand, sitting with my feet in the pool and feeling the water on my feet as they dangle ever so freely in the water, the freeness that comes with just simply standing up and walking across a room, but most of all life.  Yes, I will admit it, there are plenty of moments in my own life that I look back on and realize that I took them for granted and unfortunately, it wasn’t until the day that I lost it all that I realized it.

Although, what I have realized more and more with time is I didn’t lose it all, those memories, they are heightened, I hold them near and dear to my heart, memories that I may not of thought twice about in the moment are some of my dearest memories, but most of all it has allowed me to appreciate all of those moments again, and this time understand the enormity of them.  Being able to stand up and hug my family for the first time in nearly six years, it is a simple hug, but in that moment I am standing on my own two feet and I am able to lean over, not reach up, and hug my loved ones.  Being able to walk towards a loved one for the first time, ever, and see him eye to eye, smiling at each other and being able to just have that moment, dance to our favorite song, be held in his arms, and see my wheelchair sitting in the corner, without me in it.  Those are the simple joys in life, those are the moments to slow down for and just take in.  Those are the moments that can’t be replaced.

We have all heard the quotes that talk about living each moment as it is your last, because you never know when it will be, and initially it is easy to think how morbid that sounds, but what if we truly did live our lives that way? Maybe then we wouldn’t pass by the beauty that surrounds us in those moments of ciaos, maybe we wouldn’t forget to slow down and take life in, maybe we would be able to truly appreciate the simplest of joys in life for what they are.

So this year, I am thankful for not just life, but all of the people that have been a part of it, my family, my friends, my loved ones, and all of the individuals far and wide who have supported me.  As the saying goes, “it takes a village” and in life it truly does take a village.  We all have our own stories, our own journey, unique to us, but not a single one of us have done it on our own, there is a village that backs us.  Even in the moments that we feel alone, somewhere, there is someone that is cheering us on, and supporting us.

So this year as we all approach the holidays this is my challenge, slow down, stop amidst all the ciaos, and be gracious.  Remember that life is too short to speed right through it, it is too short to hold a grudge, and to not tell those in your life just how much they mean to you.

November 15, 2013

Moving Forward

Six years, it has been nearly six years since I took my last steps.  Most days I still have a hard time believing it has been that long, 2,122 days since I last walked, and tomorrow I will do what I thought I would never do again, I will be standing at my 5’9” stature and I will be taking my first “steps” again since my paralysis.

For the past 7 weeks I have been learning how to use my customized leg braces, compensating in my upper body for what I don’t have in my lower body, understanding how to take “steps” again, but this time without actually using my legs.

I still remember everything about January 21, 2008, it is a day that I will never forget, I carry that day with me everyday, and it motivates me to continue to move forward.  I have this belief that it isn’t the moments or the circumstances in life that define us as individuals, it is how we react to them that defines us.  I have said it before, and I will say it again, January 21, 2008 will never define me as a person, however the journey since that day has made me who I am.  This journey these past 2,122 days has been full of plenty of ups and downs, full of laughter, love, heartbreak, excitement, hardship, triumphs, and adversities, but most of all they have been full of life.  This journey is one that has taught me to appreciate the simple things in life and never, ever take them for granted.  For nearly 19 years of my life I took the simple joy of being able to walk across a room for granted and now here I am looking to celebrate being able to take my first “steps” again.

The first time I took my first steps I was far too young to remember them, however I am sure my parents could tell you all about them, how old I was, what I was wearing, where I was at, but tomorrow I will create another set of memories as I take my first “steps” again, for the second time.  It is surreal to think about, taking “steps” again, but I feel lucky, lucky that I got to learn twice, because tomorrow, I get to celebrate, with my family and loved ones, as we create new memories.  Tomorrow, I will show myself that nothing is impossible.  When I stand up tomorrow it may not be the most graceful way of standing up, it may not be the most graceful steps I have ever taken, but they will be the most beautiful, and most of all I will be able to see my loved ones eye to eye and walk towards them for the first time in nearly six years, and for a few, for the first time, ever.

This journey these past few months has been full of emotions, emotions that are hard to understand myself, let alone explain.  Seeing a clock on the wall at a “normal” height for the first time, looking individuals eye to eye, without having to look up, the simple things, they have felt monumental, they have brought joy to my life in ways I would have never imagined.  I mean, a clock, it’s nothing special but seeing it on the wall and having it feel like it did for nearly 19 years and having that perspective again was just absolutely amazing.  It really is the little things.

So tomorrow, I will put on my cute outfit that I have planned just for this special day, I will stand tall, and it will be my chance at redefining what walking to me means and taking my first “steps” again.  Another milestone in my life that symbolizes moving forward.

Since January 21, 2008, I never thought it was possible to have a day like tomorrow and now, it is possible and what I have learned from this journey is that there isn’t a single hurdle in life that we can’t get over.  I have been paralyzed for nearly six years with no chance at regaining function from my point of injury down, however, tomorrow I will do the “impossible.”

So here is my challenge, just as I challenged everyone a few months ago to live your life with passion, with heart, free of fear, hate and judgment, be courageous, and know that in any given moment you can make a difference and you can change the world by your simple actions.   My challenge for all of you today is to move forward, don’t allow the set backs in life to do just that, set you back, because you can do anything, and I mean anything you put your mind to.  Dream, and dream big, believe in yourself, and know that no matter how hard it may get, we all have the strength to rise above and to move forward.

moving-forward-img