My Road to the Paralympics

How I made the US paralympic swim team

One of the best ways I’ve found to stay strong and healthy with O.I. is through exercise.  Staying active has always been very important for my family.  My brother was busy all year playing football, basketball, and baseball.  Living in Kentucky, there were not yet adapted recreation/sports programs for me to get my exercise in the same structured way.  I’m thankful that my family was creative in finding outlets for my own quite large supply of energy.  During my brother’s practices, I often walked around a nearby track using my walker.  Sometimes I would push around the tennis court to build up endurance.  The important thing was, like my brother, I had a routine and a schedule for my exercise.  This way, I was able to see improvement, set goals, and get stronger.  In high school, I remained active in sports and decided to try wheelchair track.  I trained with my school’s track team.  Whatever distance they did, I could usually divide that in half and finish in the same amount of time.  With the help of patient coaches and some creativity, we worked on my starts and different strategies I could use during my own races.  I entered 5K races in the area and tried to better my times each weekend.  I was almost always the only entrant in the wheelchair division, but whether I “won” or not depended on whether I had improved my time.  I looked forward to attending Wright State University as my college of choice because I knew they had an excellent adapted sports program.  Little did I know my wheelchair track days would definitely be coming to an end!

My freshman year at Wright State was so exciting.  It was the first time I was able to participate in a sports program for people with disabilities.  I took an adapted fitness class my first semester and designed a workout that would be safe and effective for me.  Five years later, I still use much of it (with a few tweaks)!  I am able to build muscle by using small weights and more repetitions.  Stretching is important before lifting as a way to get my body loose and ready to work!  I get out of my chair for this and use a mat.  I’ve found floor work has helped me get stronger in many ways.  It’s a little tougher for me to do traditional sit-ups after my spinal fusion, but I can still do many different types of crunches.  I also do leg lifts and raises to strengthen my legs and hip muscles.  My hips can become pretty contracted from sitting so much. It’s important I keep them strong enough to keep my body in a straight line.  In the gym, I’m also able to use the rowing machine and the hand cycle.  Both are great ways to build cardiovascular endurance.  I also got in shape my first year of college by playing many of the intramural sports for people with disabilities offered.  I played handball, tennis, Frisbee golf, and even, wheelchair football! It’s safer than you’d think!

All this activity was a fun way to get exercise and meet new people.  I discovered that wheelchair track wasn’t really for me, but I found a sport that I loved even more, swimming!  I had always loved the water, swimming with my cousins, working at the pool during the summers, playing in the Kentucky River, and using the pool as a place to heal after fractures.  I guess it should have been obvious that this sport was going to be a good fit for me!  I started learning proper strokes and working on my techniques.  After my very first season, I qualified for the Disability National Championships for backstroke.  I did ok at that meet, but definitely had room for improvement.  During my second year, I started training everyday and my times dropped steadily.  I set my first American and world records that summer!  Four years later, I would be the only person with Osteogenesis Imperfecta to represent the United States of America in the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens Greece.  It’s amazing how far exercise and hard work can take you! 

Of course, along the road, there are always unexpected detours.  Living with OI, I’m practiced at adapting, but I can’t say I ever get “used to it.”  I’ve had a few fractures and several tissue strains or tears that have caused me to take time out of the water.  Different kinds of exercise have helped me heal quicker and hold onto the strength I work so hard to maintain.  Resistance cords for the parts that are not injured are low impact tools that can help stretch and strengthen arms and legs.  I’ve also learned exercises from trainers to strengthen my weaker areas to prevent future injuries.  For me, I have to keep my legs and hips moving both in and out of the water.  I’ve also had to set my priorities and work hard to stay healthy for swimming.  Of course, I’m always careful to a point, but during swim season, I try to refrain from doing other activities that put unnecessary strain on my shoulders.  I’ve also learned to speak up if someone asks me to do something or suggests an exercise or sport that isn’t safe for me.  Part of exercising is staying healthy so you are able to do it!  Sometimes it’s difficult, but setting priorities will help you in many areas of life.  For me, I definitely had to retire from my days as wheelchair football quarterback! 

For every sacrifice, I’ve been given so many gifts from my participation in sports and exercise activities.  I’ve stayed stronger, learned to balance my time, and stayed on top of my school work.  I’ve learned to travel, often alone, to go to meets and compete.  I’m able to transfer safer and quicker.  I can feel a difference in my body if I take even a few days off from some form of exercise.  I’m very thankful for the independence that swimming and exercise has given me.  Setting my goals to be faster and stronger keeps me going, even on those days when I’d rather just lounge!  Another motivation for me is all of the friendships and interesting people I’ve met along the way.  Once I was fortunate enough to have a team, I learned how that bond can get you through some challenging workouts.  I love meeting other competitors with disabilities across the world.  This summer, I met other people with OI from New Zealand, England, and Jamaica.  We are all proud to have overcome our fractures and now use those same strong bodies to compete for our countries. 

The experience of living with OI has been one of pain and joy for me.  The joy of reaching my goals and connecting with others keeps me going and the pain reminds me that there’s really nothing I can’t do.  We’ve all recovered from several fractures, surgeries, and some pretty brutal physical therapy sessions.  Exercise is another way to reach your dreams, whatever they may be.  So, when someone says, “Feel the burn!” just use those strengths you already have as a proud person with OI.  Get out there and do something!  


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