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Why I Say 'Yes' to Challenges in My Life With Spina Bifida

As a person living with spina bifida, challenge is part of life.  Although people may see me in a wheelchair and think I have it harder than others, I think everyone has challenges in life. It’s how we face them that really matters. I could just as easily have said “I don’t want to deal with this” and stayed home. Instead, I choose to face challenges and even find challenges to face.

I suppose my affinity for challenge really started when I met my physical education teacher, Bob Dyer, on my first day of junior high school. Each class he would push me to try things beyond what I thought possible. He became a driving force in my life, and with each challenge he presented I said “yes” and met it head on. He never expected anything less of me.

One day he challenged me to try the pegboard, which is basically a flat wood panel with holes in it and pegs that fit in the holes. The idea is to “walk” around the board only using the pegs to go from one hole to another. He told me to go for three times around the board. Of course, me being who I am, I said I will do eight. I still hold the record for the most times around the board to this day. It was a really cool feeling to have my name up on the record board, especially being the only wheelchair user in the school.

We also used the gymnastics rings in class, and one day he suggested I try doing the iron cross. This move consists of putting my arms out straight while hanging from the rings. I managed to do it, but my shoulders were on fire. Meeting that challenge showed me that I really was capable of doing things beyond what I thought possible.

His first big idea outside of physical education class was to take me downhill skiing. The first year we went to Maine Handicapped Skiing, which is now known as Maine Adaptive Sports and Recreation. I met Jay Germaine and Andy Barlow, who are both sit skiers.  They were my instructors that week, and introduced me to the mono ski. I had a very frustrating week. I started out on the magic carpet which is basically a conveyor belt that allows a person to take very short practice runs and then ride up again.

I remember not liking Bob much that week when I was falling and eating snow. As with all my challenges, though, I faced it head-on and tried my hardest to put all the instructions I was given into practice. By the end of the week, I was actually riding the lift and making turns. I have now been skiing over 20 years and just bought my own mono ski.

At the age of 15, Bob got me into wheelchair racing. I got my first racing chair with the help of a sponsor and started pushing myself 20 miles a day, 7 days a week as the weather allowed. I would come home after school in the spring and throw down some food, jump in my chair and head off. I would push myself the 10 miles back to school and then home again. There was a hill about 5 miles into the trip that was about a mile long and very steep. I lived for pushing this hill because I knew the thrill ride I would get on the way back. On my way back, I would sit at the top of the hill, look both ways to see if the coast was clear, and then push for all I was worth. I managed to get up to 56 miles per hour the first time, and when I got to the bottom my arms were shaking. I was scared but exhilarated at the same time. After that I was hooked. I couldn’t wait to do that hill every day.

Fast forward to recent history. Over the past few years, I have increased my level of challenge.  I began rock climbing and just completed my first ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. I don’t want to give too much away about that experience, as there is a movie coming out very soon that will illustrate it perfectly. Let me just say that when most people hear I did 4000 pull-ups, they focus on that as being the hard part.

For a person with a disability like mine, the hard part of rock climbing is daily living activities. Performing tasks such as getting dressed or using the bathroom in a space that is about 4 feet by 8 feet is much harder when you are unable to stand up. You are using up most of the space with your body just sitting on the porta-ledge, so everything requires much more planning and effort. When the movie is released, everyone will have the chance to see what the experience was like.

I guess you could say I am happier and more alive when I am facing a challenge. It is like an energy boost comes over me and I push myself to overcome whatever I am facing. I said “yes” to each challenge over my life and it has given me a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction each time.I would encourage you to say yes to challenges and face them as I have. I truly believe you will find out things about yourself you never thought possible, and it will enrich your life more than anything else.

Follow this journey on Go Beyond the Fence.

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