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Scuba Stung

 Scuba Stung

Awkward scuba selfie

Awkward scuba selfie

So a little less than a month ago I had, hands down, one of the best weeks of my life! I was chosen, along with five other kids, to take a seven day trip through an amazing organization called Stay Focused. Their mission is to “offer a unique, transformational learning experience to teens and young adults with disabilities through a SCUBA certification program.” In other words, I flew down to the Cayman Islands for a week and earned my scuba diving license! I was all kinds of nervous prior to the trip because I didn’t know a single person going, and although I was very comfortable in the water, I figured scuba diving would be a whole new experience. Boy was I right, but I definitely made memories and friends that will last a life time.

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The divers!

The first two days of our excursion were spent in the classroom and in the pool. I had sorta kinda read the PADI scuba manual that we were all sent months before the trip (about as well as any college student reads assigned texts) … but thank goodness we had an amazing instructor who was able to teach us the entire textbook in two days, not to mention my group’s two mentors who kept us well entertained during the process! Putting on all of the gear for the first time in the pool was a little nerve-wracking, the jacket felt heavy with the weights and because I couldn’t use my legs to stabilize myself, I felt a tad bit like a Weeble. But once I had my regulator in my mouth and took my first breath underwater, I knew I would soon fall in love with the sport.

 

Right before our first dive

Right before our first dive

The next three days flew by so fast I have to keep looking at pictures I took with my GoPro to remind myself it really happened! My absolute favorite dive was on the last day, when we explored a shipwreck. The USS Kittiwake was a submarine rescue vessel (a whopping 251ft long) that was first commissioned in 1946. In 2011 she was sunk in the Cayman Islands to serve as an artificial reef, and we were lucky enough to get to look around. Before the dive, our instructor warned us that we wouldn’t go into any tight, claustrophobic spaces (thank god), we were just going to explore the deck. So my buddy and I were casually looking around about 40ft under, when I suddenly see our instructor start swimming into a giant, pitch black hole going deeper and deeper into the boat. Now I never considered myself to be afraid of the dark or small spaces for that matter, but my heart was definitely pounding out of my chest those first couple of minutes. We climbed up narrow ladders, and dove around her steel frame, going in and out of engine and propulsion rooms, ammunition lockers, crew’s quarters, and a bathroom where I caught a glimpse of myself swimming by in the rusty but functional mirrors. I think I loved the boat so much because if it was not 60 feet under water, I would have never been able to explore it. As much as I love the ocean and boating and everything beach related in general, boats are about as inaccessible as you can get, especially ones built in the forties. That’s one of the things I love about diving so much is it opens up so many new possibilities. You learn something new on every dive, whether it’s about the creatures living on the ocean floor, or something new about yourself. You also learn very quickly that taking pictures underwater is quite a daunting task so excuse my personal photography, these were sadly the best out of hundreds. (Thanks to https://www.facebook.com/pages/JenFu-Cheng-Photography/139533845037 for the beautiful ones!) But that just gives me an excuse to get back in the water as soon as I can to keep practicing. 😉

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At the end of our trip( which I’m still trying to process actually happened) we were asked to create a “legacy log” which was simply a single sheet of paper that we decorated in some way to commemorate our time on the island. Since my artistic abilities are about that of an ape, I decided to write something. I’ve wrote little poems in the past but never really shared them, needless to say I was embarrassed as hell to read this out loud in a room full of people, even if they were some of the nicest and most generous people I have ever met. Since our departure, a few members of my diving team asked me to send them a copy of this said poem and I’ve been putting it off, until now. I am still trying to get used to the idea of putting my writing out there so everyone can see, so I figured why not just dive in right? (haha pun unintended) Here it is…

Scuba Stung

Most people think that a sting is a bad thing
but when it shocks your body and electrifies your mind
How can something so beautiful be bad?
The magnificent feeling of floating in space
Awestruck as creatures glide in front of your face
no fins
for these feet have spent more time in sea than on land
extra weight
how else could this light hearted fool sink to the sand?
The kind of sting I have cannot be undone
sun on mask, wind in hair
It won’t go unsung
Seasons will pass, but I’ll never fear
thanks to Stay Focused I’ll be back here next year!

stung

Yes, I know it’s incredibly cheesy, but I just wanted to let the fantastic people of Stay Focused know how much I appreciate all they have given me, and how blessed I am to have taken part insuch an amazing organization. You can learn more about them here, http://www.stay-focused.org/index.php

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Everything Happens for a Reason…Or Does It?

Everything Happens for a Reason…Or Does It?

 

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Four months before the accident

 

I only have faint memories of my time in the hospital and rehab, but one thing that stands out in my mind was receiving dozens cards from my friends and family that read, “ Everything will be O.K., because everything happens for a reason.”

My ten year old brain was having an extremely difficult time grasping this concept. Were these people telling me that it was good that I lost the ability to walk because someday it would have a greater purpose? Were they telling me that some God purposefully made this awful accident happen? That ten year old me was supposed to not be able to run on the mulch at recess, or feel the sand between my toes at the beach, or reach for the sky on the swing set with my best friends? At the time I just couldn’t comprehend why people kept saying that to me, and I would always just brush it off and move on. It’s probably important to note that I was not raised in a very religious family (surprise, surprise). Even years after the accident I still often hear that phrase repeated to me, and it always makes my stomach clench and I fight to keep my big, mouth shut.

There’s the age old argument that if everything happens for a reason, then why…? Why are people across the world starving on the streets while others spend $500 on a purse? Why are kids with different sexual orientations bullied to the point of suicide? Why do innocent people die? Ultimately, why do bad things happen to good people?

I, of course, am not trying to answer any of these questions, just hoping to provide a small insight to my personal point of view.

About a week ago my team and I were driving home from an awesome week of road races and track meets in Georgia. For those who don’t know, I’m a student at the University of Illinois, and a member of the wheelchair track team. The program is better than anything I could have ever imagined, and our coach is amazing beyond words. Joining the team has definitely been one of the best decisions I have made to date. The twenty or so of us are all in wheelchairs, but everyone’s injury is unique. Some were born with Spina bifida, some are veterans, some were in sporting accidents, my injury is from a car crash back in 2003. I would say we’re a pretty tightly knit group, but I’m never quite sure who’s okay to talk about their injury, and who is not, so it’s not really a popular topic of discussion.

My team!

My team!

I was sitting in the back seat of our team’s suburban with two of my teammates, both incredible girls who hopefully someday I’ll be as talented as, and somehow the topic of our injuries came up. I won’t go into specifics, but one thing was exactly the same in all three of our stories, none of us were wearing a seat belt with a shoulder strap. We all had on the lap belt that is equipped in the middle back seat of most oldish cars, but nothing went across our shoulders. If you take a look at any new car now, it is absolutely mandatory that every seat in the car has a lap and shoulder belt, but that law wasn’t put into full effect until 2008! I was ten at the time of my injury, and I knew not having a shoulder strap was one of the many factors that went into the cause of my injury, but when I realized these two other girls had very similar injuries to me, and also weren’t wearing a full seat belt, I was a little shocked.

Is there some greater reason that the two girls on my team and I are paralyzed, or was it just the lack of understanding and knowledge, that hey, maybe it would be a good idea to put a proper seat belt in every seat of a car? Maybe just maybe it would be smart to make it illegal to not wear a seat belt in most states? I always thought my injury was as unique as the car crash, that there were so many independent variables that the exact cause of my injury was unknown. But after talking to others in very similar circumstances with very similar injuries, it really makes you think.

What if someone in the nineties was really ahead of the times and decided to make it mandatory to have shoulder straps in all vehicles, how completely different would the three of our lives be? How completely different would just my life be? For one thing, I sure as hell wouldn’t be running marathons at 19, I can tell you that! Haha I definitely wouldn’t be going to school in Illinois, trying to get used to these cold cold winters either! I wouldn’t have to worry about the accessibility of the world when I travel, or deal with flat tires and broken castors, or have to take medication daily so I don’t pee my pants in public all the time…. Let’s just say things would be very different. On that note, I also wouldn’t have met many of my best friends in high school that I ran track with, or the three amazing teachers and coaches who have guided me through the good times and the bad, or get to travel across the country with a group of people I adore, pushing my body to its furthest physical and psychological limit! The state of Florida probably wouldn’t have a program for high schoolers with disabilities to compete in track and field either, which is something I’m very thankful exists today.

Obviously many great things have been a result of my injury, but I’m still not so sure I would like to accredit them to a higher power or completely set in stone destiny. I would like to think that everything that has happened since the accident is a result of incredible support from my family, a strong group of friends always by my side, teachers and guides who have continually pushed me and believed in me, and then my own stubborn perseverance to not let my wheelchair stop me from doing anything I want to do.

So although I do not exclusive believe that everything in life happens for a reason, I do believe that it is possible, and in your favor, to make light of every situation and as my favorite drama teacher would say, “Keep turning those negatives into positives!”

Our car after the accident and me racing in high school

Our car after the accident and me racing in high school

Do I Inspire You?

Do I Inspire You?

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Inspiration. Thrown around loosely, this term can not only be offensive but hurtful in ways unknown to most strangers. Before I go into this mini rant (quite a topic for my first post!), I would like to include that the majority of people who use this term genuinely mean it out of the kindness in their hearts. But what they don’t realize is that their naivety to the connotations of that specific word sometimes does more bad than good. An example that immediately comes to mind happened only a few weeks ago when my team and I were in Peoria for a marathon. One of my awesome teammates, Josh (you can find his blog here…http://joshgeorgeracing.com/blog/), was being recognized by a great group of people who run to raise money so a group of kids with disabilities can attend therapy. Everyone at this event was extremely friendly, but when one young woman stood at the podium and said these words, my heart dropped.

“I just want to say that these kids are my inspiration, and I’m running this race for them, because they’ll never be able to.”

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Hold up.

This is probably not something you should say to a room full of athletes with disabilities…

I felt a very strong urge to inform this woman that just because someone has a disability, doesn’t  mean shit.  Was she seriously going to victimize these children right in front of us? Not too long ago those kids were us, and if someone told me when I was little that they were going to run a race because I couldn’t, where would I be today? Probably not completing marathons and training with world class athletes, that’s for sure.
I was furious! I wanted to grab this woman by the shoulders and shake this awful idea out of her.  Of course, I kept my mouth shut, but it really got me thinking. How can I change the stigma that is placed on so many people with disabilities? I mean it’s practically engraved in the word itself that we are not good enough, not sufficient. “Dis” is a Latin root meaning “apart”, so literally it translates to “apart from the abled”. This is something I now realize I’ve been trying to deconstruct ever since my accident ten years ago.  Everybody wants to fit in, everybody wants to be loved, so why does society make it so difficult to accomplish these things just because you’re different, because you’re “apart” from the rest.

What I believe to be one of the most effective efforts to slowly adjust the public’s eye of those with disabilities is wheelchair athletics or adaptive sports in general.  Through sports I was able to change my identity from, “that one chick in the wheelchair” to, “that one chick in the wheelchair that runs marathons!” which sounds a hell of a lot better to me. Does the wheelchair go away? No, physically it is a big part of me and kind of essential to my mobility. But mentally, the wheelchair is NO part of me, and I wish that’s how the world would see it too.

Whenever someone comes up and tells me I’m an inspiration, a part of me is sometimes irked because are you, like that young woman, completely categorizing and labeling me initially as someone who is disabled and therefore not as good… Then “inspired” because I broke this stereotype and accomplished something you thought I couldn’t?  Or are you just impressed by my dedication and fortitude NOT as someone in a wheelchair, but as a human being? Inspiration is a tricky thing my friend.

I would like to hope that most people see me for my own achievements and not for my disability, but when you hear comments at least once a week like, “Wow! It’s great to see you out!” at places like the park or movie theater… it can really bog you down. My latest response is now to just reply “It’s great to see you out too, sir!”, and give ‘em a big ole grin. Maybe that will get them thinking. Last week I was literally hugged at the grocery store. I was in the frozen food aisle at my favorite health store, just minding my own business looking for my favorite Ezekiel bread, when this lady just freakin’ hugged me out of nowhere and said thank you for inspiring her.
I. Was. Looking. For. Bread.

This is not to say that it is bad to find people in wheelchairs or people with any type of disability inspiring, this is just me saying I really hope you’re inspired by what they can do, rather than how they look, or what they have “overcome”. Despite my disability, I wake up every morning just like you, ready to face the day (well except for a few extra cups of coffee than is probably recommended). I genuinely have a positive outlook on life, and even though I have no idea what the future holds, I’m not going to sit inside all day and wait for something to happen. I do, in fact, have a life outside not being able to walk. I have hopes and dreams and goals just like everybody else out there, and THAT is what I want to define me, not a piece of metal with some upholstery and wheels.

I really hope that this post doesn’t discourage anyone from seeing somebody as an inspiration (that’s not what I’m trying to do at all!!), but just maybe opens their eyes to a new perspective. A perspective of someone a little different from themselves, but essentially equal. Equal in heart, equal in strength, and equal in ability, because I am and always will be a firm believer of anything is possible.

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