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When I Posed for ESPN's 'Body Issue' as a Paralympian With Chronic Illness

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It started eight years ago, when I was nineteen. I was inconsolable and curled into a ball on my bathroom floor. I wept over the phone to one of my best friends, exclaiming repeatedly, “I hate my body.”

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I cried for the person I used to be, out of fear for the future, but mostly for a body that had betrayed me. The strength that had carried me to the top of the podium for my first triathlon quickly faded away. The explosive yet graceful turns, leaps and mile-high kicks on the dance floor were now awkward and uncoordinated, at best.

You see, I was a healthy, smiling, active and enthusiastic college student — until I wasn’t. Over just a few short months, the pain set in, riddling my brain and body and becoming more unbearable as every day passed. On this particular day I had arrived home again from another medical appointment without any answers. I was exhausted, I couldn’t see straight and I was vomiting from the pain that overwhelmed me.

Shortly after my first triathlon, in 2008, I complained of my brain aching. The pain grew over a few weeks and tingling began in my arms and legs. The doctor told me the culprit was a migraine caused by stress from taking on too much. I didn’t feel stressed. I had had migraines in the past, but this felt different. I tried to explain that to her, but was dismissed. I left that first appointment feeling uneasy and thinking this was not the right answer. I took her advice anyways and cut back my hours at work and in triathlon training. I tried the migraine medications she gave me, one after another, after another. This made no difference as the symptoms continued to progress. From specialist to specialist I went. Each having their own diagnosis and treatment, but the progression of debilitating symptoms continued. My life consisted of one hospital stay after another and I was left without any answers. Over a year and a half passed before my diagnoses of chiari 2 malformation, basilar invagination and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS). And the spunky, vibrant college athlete disappeared.

My beautiful turn out disappeared as my feet, hips and knees became spastic and pigeon-toed. The lungs that let me dance for eight hours at a time and run for nearly twenty miles were now winded crossing the bedroom. My legs could barely carry me from my bed to the kitchen and the straight-A, full-ride scholarship student in me couldn’t shake the pain long enough to attend class. A soul that embodied strength and grace had disappeared before my eyes, leaving only a ghost of what it used to be. Instead of living, I was merely surviving my new day-to-day.

I was no longer an athlete or a dancer. I was lost, frightened and trying to traverse a system that repeatedly failed me. The body I use to love for its quick and precise movements, its natural athletic ability and brain was reduced to what felt like a “puddle on the bathroom floor.” At that moment, I could never have imagined where I would be today.

Fast-forward to April of 2016, when I got an email from ESPN asking if I would be a part of their annual “Body Issue” magazine. Already familiar with the issue and without any hesitation, it wasn’t long before I emailed a hasty “Let’s chat!” back. A short phone call later, and I had agreed to be one of the nineteen athletes that would pose for the magazine.

After I hung up the phone, I was shocked at how quickly I’d agreed to “bare it all” — without ever stopping to realize I went from feeling betrayed by my own body to appreciating it so wholly that I was willing to show off my athleticism to the world?

So what is it like posing for the “Body Issue?” The photoshoot took place in Gateway, Colorado – a picture perfect backdrop with stunning red rocks, canyons and wide-open spaces. When I got on the plane, I thought I would get nervous. When I met the photo team, I thought I would get nervous. Going to bed the night before the shoot I thought I’d definitely be nervous and not able to sleep, but it never happened.

As I sit on the plane writing this, for the first time I have stopped and really thought about what I’ve become a part of. While reflecting on this incredible Paralympic journey, I realize how far I have come from that “puddle on the bathroom floor.”

When I went into my first brain and spine surgery, I promised myself I would do whatever it took to stop surviving and start living again, but in doing so I had to reimagine much of what I thought my life would be. When I could no longer seamlessly dance across the floor or run around the city, part of my identity had been taken from me.

Through rare and chronic illness, surgeries and newly acquired disabilities, I felt like a huge part of my identity as an athlete had been stolen from me.

I knew I couldn’t change what had happened.

I had to adapt.

I adapted to the cards I was dealt. I worked tirelessly to defeat the imposed limitations and to accomplish my newly renovated goals.

When I no longer could identify with my body, I didn’t change who I was. I changed my vision.

In doing so, I was able to reimagine my life, reform my identity and live more fully than I ever thought possible. I transformed hate, resentment and betrayal into acceptance, an acceptance I was proud to showcase for ESPN. The morning of the photoshoot started with a quick workout and shower followed by hair and makeup before we headed out the door. We started the morning shooting on the bike, while running and finished the day with a few swim shots. I can’t believe how awkward and unnatural some of the positioning felt, but when captured on film it looked as if I was competing.

I expected it would be weird to drop the robe, but it wasn’t. It was a pleasure working with everyone involved. It is beyond humbling to be featured in an issue that has photographed the best athletes of all time and some of the athletes I admire most.

I chose to participate in the “Body Issue” to rejoice in the acceptance of a new me. I wanted to celebrate the courage and the athleticism in my journey as an athlete, but more importantly as a disabled individual who chooses to live life to the fullest. Over the past few years, I have become incredibly appreciative of my good days, I have tried to stop beating myself up on the bad and I celebrate the small victories. But most importantly, I appreciate everything my body can do and what it has helped me accomplish. My body is not perfect, but it is perfectly imperfect and every day I begin to love it a little bit more. My life is not what I imagined — it is so much better!

I have been asked a few times if there was anything I would change from my experience. If there were one thing I would change about my time with ESPN, it would be this.

The last question I was asked in my interview was “Are you disabled?” I quickly responded with “No!”

If I could go back and change one thing, this would be my answer: “I am Allysa. I am an athlete. A World Champion. I am a friend, a confidant, a daughter, a Paralympian and so much more. I am more than people see because they can’t see past my disability.”

Allysa’s ESPN interview and photoshoot can be found here.

Originally published: August 1, 2016
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