“Why is he sitting out?” I was chatting with my friend Courtney, pointing with my sole finger to Matt, a fellow sophomore on the Urbana High School wrestling team. “Oh, he didn’t make weight this week. You’d better avoid him on the bus ride home, he’s in a rotten mood.” Courtney and I had just become cheerleaders, known as “Wrestlettes,” for the UHS team. Knowing absolutely nothing about the sport, I had tried out simply because Courtney wanted to try out with a friend. When she saw my confused face, Courtney continued. “Matt weighed in at 113, but he is in the 112 weigh class. I bet he starves himself this week so he’ll make weight before next week’s match against Champaign Central.” I instantly agreed with her. Although I hardly knew anything about wrestling, I was crystal clear that Central High School was our arch rival. “C’mon girls!” It was Missy, our captain. She was tall, with gorgeous blond hair and sparkling blue eyes. Next to Missy, I felt like a one-fingered, one-toed ugly duckling. Courtney and I lined up alongside the rest of the squad next to the mat. As soon as the referee blew his whistle, we began to clap our hands while chanting, “Let’s go, Let’s go! L-E-T-S. G-O!”
Although with the exception of the sleeves being too long for my shortened forearms, my black and orange Wrestlette outfit mainly fit. However, as I continued to jump up and down, I quickly felt the lump of paper I had wadded in the front of my Candees hi-top sneaker travel down toward the heel of my shoe. The sneakers were too long, (by several inches) for my almost circular-shaped feet. Even so, there was absolutely no way I would be seen wearing my comfortable but incredibly ugly custom-made moon boots. The sensation caused by the mislocated wad of paper was beyond uncomfortable, even painful, as I jumped and cheered. I was tempted to drop out of line to fix my shoe but then I caught the eye of Misty’s Mom, our Wrestlette coach and felt the need to keep going. “U-R-B-A-N-A! Urbana Tigers….Yay!” I clapped my two fingers together, knowing they wouldn’t make much of a noise, but compensated with my booming voice.
When it was time for a break, I noticed Matt’s face. He looked miserable and frustrated, but determined. . I ran to the bathroom still feeling the lump of paper in my shoe. As I sat down on the window ledge to adjust the stuffing in each shoe, I couldn’t help but notice my face in the mirror ……frustrated, yet determined.
Recently, a friend told me about an amazing athlete, Anthony Robles. Robles was born in 1988 with one leg, and by age three refused to wear a prosthetic. I related to Robles, recalling my own willful rejection of hand prosthetics offered by doctors in Chicago when I was around the same young age. As it turned out, the only assist Robles actually needed was his willful spirit –the one that by high school led him to become a successful wrestler, even winning the 2010-11 NCAA individual wrestling championship. Robles went on to author the inspiring book Unstoppable: From Underdog to Undefeated: How I Became a Champion.
Sure, things did not come so easily for Robles, and having to make weight for a match was the least of his challenges. In fact, as a freshman, Robles had finished last in a wrestling competition. However, ever more determined, Robles wrote down his goal (State champ) on a sticky note with the message to himself, “You can do it.” And did he do “it” and more. Robles not only became a two time high school state champion, but when no college offered him a scholarship, he continued to persevere and walked on at Arizona State University. Then, in 2011 Robles shocked the wrestling world when he won the NCAA National Championship. “I’m sitting there, 20 thousand people watching and I have to wrestle the returning champ. I was scared out of my mind. I remember running out of the tunnel, stepping on the mat telling myself, there is no way this guy worked harder than me,” said Robles.
Of course, behind every determined child are supportive parents. When it comes to raising a child with a physical difference, this statement cannot be emphasized enough. “You can imagine as a kid, I struggled — I didn’t understand why I was different. I was missing my leg. I didn’t know what to do. My mom told me, G-d made you that way, there is a plan, just wait and see what it is.”
This week I thought a lot about Robles and what he represents for people born with a physical difference, like me and our two boys, Ethan and Charlie. Just as Robles has discovered, our life’s strategy is perseverance, against all odds. I thought about it reflecting on our family bike-ride with the kids this past Sunday, with Charlie having to adjust to hand instead of foot brakes. I thought about it as I watched Charlie and Savanna run
towards the ice-cream truck knowing full-well how difficult those pre-packaged cones are for us to open, but still watched with admiration as he persisted until he opened his package independently. I even thought about it the evening before his piano recital this past June, when I bought him a blue-checkered shirt and I realized he would not leave his room for the concert until he had accomplished buttoning the tiniest of buttons. I thought about it the first time Ethan told me he wanted to play soccer and I couldn’t fathom how I would be able to get any cleats to fit his wide, two-toed feet. I also thought about it the day I refused to leave my room as a child until (five hours later) I emerged able to tie my own shoes.
In a recent interview, Robles advised that, “Everyone will have challenges, whether its in sports or life. You’re always going to have something that’s going to knock you down. The question is, are you going to get back up?” When I read that, I couldn’t help but think back to those wrestlers on the Urbana High School wrestling team so many years ago. Making weight was rough for them, and even if they succeeded and got to wrestle, there would always be someone trying to knock them down. Like Robles, I was raised to believe in myself and as a result, overcoming my physical challenges was never in question.