The Game Ball

At the end of every baseball game in Ian’s Coaches Pitch League, the coaches select a player who gets the game ball. Often the game ball goes to the player who made a clutch catch, hit a double or tagged someone out during the game. It is an honor to receive the ball, and the young players cherish getting the game ball more than a win.

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In one of Ian’s recent games, he didn’t make a clutch catch or tag anyone out.  Actually, I’m not sure he even touched the ball when he was playing in the outfield. However, he did get a hit. It was barely a single, but it earned him the game ball. Let me explain how it all happened…

Ian walked slowly up to the plate dragging his electric-green bat behind him. He positioned his feet parallel to the plate, slung his bat over his shoulder, got his back elbow up and looked at his coach signaling he was ready. Kneeling on one knee, Coach Nick lobbed the ball over home plate. Ian swung…and missed. Ian swung at the next ball and missed. He continued to swing and miss until the fifth ball. This time he swung and tipped the ball only to have the ball hit him in the forehead. After rubbing his head and talking to Coach Rori who checked his head,  Ian once again took his spot at the plate. This time looking tired and a bit nervous. Ian held tightly to the bat, swung and missed.

By about the eleventh pitch, I was standing anxiously with my hands clenched when Ian looked up at me wondering what to do. At this point, Coach Nick wiped his brow and encouraged Ian to keep swinging. Then, from the dugout one of his teammates started to chant, “Let’s go, Ian. Let’s go!” Instantly, all the other players stood up and joined in the chanting, “Let’s go, Ian. Let’s go!”

On the next pitch, Ian swung and hit the ball. It wasn’t a big hit. It didn’t even get past the pitcher’s mound, but it is enough for Ian to make it safely to first. Once on base, Ian jumped up and down waving his arms triumphantly in the air. Everyone cheered, and I felt like I was in a Disney movie as the tears welled up in my eyes.

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At the close of the game, the coaches gathered all the players in the dugout. I didn’t get to hear what was said, but I will always remember Ian running up to me while holding a ball high above his head smiling and shouting, “Mom! Mom! I got the game ball! I got it for not giving up!”

I can’t thank the coaches enough for what they taught Ian at that game. He learned to persist. He learned that when you surround yourself with others who believe in you that you can exceed your own expectations. Most importantly, Ian learned that he can do anything.

I also want to thank all of the players and their families. I am so grateful for all of the support you have shown Ian throughout the season.  It makes me proud to be a part of this community where differences are celebrated.

And just when I thought I couldn’t be more amazed by this baseball season, Ian ended his last game by taking the mound and pitching. Watch out Jim Abbott!

Finally, keep believing in the possible! I do.

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A Gift of Love & Sunshine: Ian Stratton

Sometimes you just never know where you will go on life’s journey. Nearly three years ago, I started this blog to raise awareness about adaptive sports and share the sports stories of athletes who redefine ability. At that time, I didn’t expect to fall in love with someone I had never met. I didn’t expect to travel across the world with my family or to become a parent for the third time. But all of that did happen, and it has been incredible.

We met Ian on October 9th and became his family on October 10, 2017. It took nearly a year to get to that point. During that time, we would stare at the few photos we had of him and imagine our new life with him. Now, we can’t imagine life without him. Here is a glimpse of how this 7-year-old boy from China has melted our hearts, taught us about the power of love and shown us the beauty of the small things in life.

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Some people are so much sunlight to the square inch. –Walt Whitman

 

  1. His smile. It is infectious. Ian isn’t just a happy boy. He is joyous and spreads joy like a pixie fairy leaving anyone in his wake smiling and feeling better about the world.
  2. His courage. Ian is the bravest person I have ever met. He has embraced his new life and all the challenges it presents like a seasoned champion.
  3. His heart. Ian loves wholeheartedly. He smothers us with hugs and kisses. He greets us at the end of the day like we have been gone for weeks, and he says “I love you” because he means it.
  4. His energy. Ian has endless energy, and I mean endless. Ian Nolan Swim
  5. His intelligence. Ian is smart and he is proud of it. He will tell you what a good student he was in China, but it is his big thoughts that amaze me. It is what he wonders about…like parking airplanes on clouds or afterlife in heaven, that make me stop and reflect.
  6. His sense of humor. Ian is always teasing us and laughing. He loves to have fun and laugh with others.
  7. His grit. Ian lives a one-handed life in a two-handed world. It is not easy, but he takes it all on with dogged determination.
  8. His future. It is simply so bright.

So now you know…you know why I haven’t been writing as much as I would like. You know how I fell in love with a little boy across the globe. You know about Ian, my youngest son, who has redefined our family.

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Keep believing in the possible! We do!!!

Jen

 

 

 

Showing Up on the Blocks

I learned an important lesson about “just showing up” from Nolan at his swim meet on Saturday. Here he is as a sixth grader swimming on the high school team simply because he believes he can. He stands about a foot shorter and 75 pounds lighter than most of his teammates or competitors. He is still trying to do a flip turn and he has come in last every race this season. Yet, he still shows up…with a smile.

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Nolan and Cole, the swim team captain, who has supported Nolan the whole season. Thanks, Cole! Photot Credit: Jen Stratton

On Saturday, it was a big meet. It was the league championships. While I was sitting with Nolan before his first race, he shared that Jack, one of the older students who has been watching out for him, asked him on the bus ride  what his goal was for the meet. Nolan told me he had two goals: 1) not to come in last and 2) to do flip turns in his freestyle events.

I sat nervously in the bleachers as Nolan stepped on to the block for his first race, the 50 freestyle. He took his mark and dove in. For the first 25 he swam his heart out just a few yards behind the leader. He approached the wall and to my amazement did a flip turn. I jumped up shouting. I cheered and screamed like it was the Olympics. Parents from other schools  in the stands looked at me wondering why I was cheering so loudly for the kid who was clearly undersized and was now being outperformed by all the swimmers in the pool, except one.  Although his kick slowed and his form got messy, he tagged the wall in fifth place for his heat making him 77 out 78 swimmers. He had achieved his goals.

I sat back down and my heart filled with joy for him. Then, my eyes filled with tears. In those tears were all the memories of PT sessions, OT sessions, evaluations, labels, and all the other rollercoaster moments of being a parent of a child whose journey is different.

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Nolan coming off the blocks for his 100 freestyle event. Photo Credit: Jen Stratton

And just like a rollercoaster ride, this meet was filled with ups and downs. Two hours later with a bit of success under his belt, Nolan confidently stepped on to the block to swim in the 100 freestyle event. This time he dove in and came up with his goggles not on his eyes, but choking him around the neck. He struggled to make it to the end of the pool. He then stood in the shallow water gasping for breath looking around for help. His coach pulled him from the pool and, fortunately, Nolan’s teammates surrounded him with support.

Eventually, he made his way to us in the stands. He slumped down and cried, “I didn’t achieve my goals. I am a failure.”

Seth and I tried reassure him that he had achieved some of his goal, just not all…not yet. We tried to explain how proud we were of him for “just showing up.” We shared sports stories of other athletes like Michael Jordan who had failed, but had grit and had persevered through setbacks.  However, our words just were not enough to lighten his disappointment.

Fortunately, it appears some rest and comfort can help a lot. Because over breakfast Nolan asked me to take him to the pool at the YMCA to train. He explained that he was going to “redeem himself.” He was going to practice so  that in his next meet, the New England Championships (an even bigger meet),  he could achieve his goals. So we spent this Sunday morning at the pool swimming laps together and Nolan taught me how to do a flip turn. During the car ride home, Nolan smiled and said, “Mom, that was fun.” I agreed and told him that he had not only taught me to do a flip turn, but that sometimes, we just need to show up.

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Nolan is ready and determined to achieve his goals. We believe in you, Nolan! Photo Credit: Proud Mom (a.k.a Jen Stratton)

Love you, Nolan! You’ve got grit!

Mackenzie Soldan: From Grit to Gold

Mackenzie Soldan has a long list of accomplishments for 2016. Completing her MBA at the University of Alabama, winning a gold medal with the USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball in Rio and visiting White House are only three items that top the list. I was fortunate to catch up with Mackenzie as she took some time to reflect on her sports journey.

What moment from the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio will stick with you? The moment before we got our gold medal. When I was pushing out to the podium with all of my teammates. I realized then that I had achieved my dream, and all of my family and old coaches were there to see it. All the people who had contributed to getting me to that moment were there.

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                 Team USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball with their gold medals in Rio.                                Photo Courtesy of Mackenzie Soldan

What makes the Paralympic Games a unique sporting event? The Paralympics are unique because it brings so many athletes from different cultures together that wouldn’t meet except through sports. It also demonstrates the progress of disabled sports and helps to continue the movement forward.

What was your grittiest moment of the Games? As a team, we had a moment in the semi-finals where we played the home team. In the locker room the coaches let us have it. The whole team was down because we hadn’t play to our expectations. At our next practice, we pushed through it. We realized that one moment or one game was not going to ruin this for us. We decided to forget it and go with what we knew. We did just that and ended up with a great final game.

Who was an athlete at the Paralympic Games that embodied grit for you? His name is

Ahmed Shafik Photo Credit: TeamUSA.org

Ahmed Shafik. He was born in Iraq and contracted polio as a baby. After the Iraqi team had a poor performance at the Games, he was jailed for a year and beaten badly. He decided to leave the country and arrived in the US as a refugee. He then joined the US Army as a translator and served a tour in Iraq for three years. When he came back he returned to powerlifting and was the only American powerlifter at the Games in Rio. I think that story perfectly displays having grit. He was in a tough situation, and against all odds, he made his way through it. The way that happens is by making one decision. I think you can usually trace back someone’s success to one moment where the person consciously decides to either make a change or do nothing. Ahmed made the decision to make a change in a harder situation than most of us will ever encounter.

 

What do you hope people gained from watching the Paralympic Games? I hope people realized that the Games are a high level of competitive sports and they became fans. I hope they watched and became inspired by athletes who were following their dreams. I also hope that the Games humanized people with disabilities. And finally, I hope that people learned not to fear disabilities, but to simply see them as a part of an athlete’s life. Disabilities don’t make a person greater or lesser.

What’s next for you? Everyone has been asking me that question. I’m not sure. It’s hard. For four years you have a plan. Right now, I am going to take a break and think about starting my career.

No matter her decision, Mackenzie’s future is bright because we know she will always choose grit. Thanks, Mackenzie for being awesome and representing Team USA!

If you want to learn more about Mackenzie you can check out her  NWBA Athlete of the Week interview.

Josh Kennison: On the Side Lines

Josh Kennison loves sports. He is a fierce competitor who has set records in track and field. Josh is also a mentor at Camp No Limits (CNL) for young people with limb loss. At CNL he is known not only for his sports accomplishments, but for his heart of gold. Now, Josh is finding that this combination of grittiness and kindness is perfect when you decide to trade in running spikes for standing on the sidelines with a clipboard. Here is my interview with this athlete turned coach:

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Josh Kennison with the CNL family. Photo Credit: Camp No Limits

What sparked your desire to transition to coaching? This past winter, I could not train every day due to knee pain. I decided I wanted to know if I could transfer my competitiveness to training other athletes. In the spring I started  at Telstar High School in Maine as their head track and field coach. I soon realized that I loved helping young people. It was clear to me that the reason I was put on this earth was to help people.

How would you define your coaching style? I care a lot about my athletes. I want to push them so they bend, but don’t break. Coaching is not just about sports. I am there for them in life. I want to be someone they can trust.

What do you hope your athletes learn from you? I hope they learn to never give up in life. I don’t want them to ever loose sight of their goals.

You know I love superpowers, so what is your coaching superpower? Oh, man that is a good question. My coaching superpower is making athletes feel like they can do anything. I’m always like, “Let’s do this!” I have one athlete who wants to go to the Olympics. I believe in her and I am helping her achieve that goal. I would rather have an athlete fail trying 100%, than tell her to never try.

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Coach Josh on the sidelines with the Telstar Girls Soccer Team. Photo Credit: Duchess Killam

When we spoke last time, you defined grit as messy and said, “It is working so hard that you are reaching for every ounce of energy you can provide yourself.” How do you develop grit in your athletes? I have to ride them. I tell them that when you practice, you always have to practice like you are in a game.

What are your goals for your new coaching career? I want to be the best high school coach I can be. I want to be more than just a coach for my athletes. I want to be there for them in life and I hope someday to coach their children or even grandchildren.

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Coach Josh with his high school track stars. Photo Credit: Duchess Killam

In case you are wondering, Josh is a congenital quad amputee who coaches able-bodied middle school and high school athletes. I simply mention this awesome fact because Josh is breaking down barriers and redefining ability for himself and his athletes. Way to believe in the possible, Josh!

If you are interested in having this game changer speak to your students or athletes feel free to contact Josh at youcandoanything89@gmail.com.

My Favorite Four-Letter Word

In August we returned to Acadia National Park in Maine for a family vacation. We had been there five years earlier with Nolan and Caitlin. At that time Caitlin was just three years old and Nolan was five. During that trip, the kids hiked their first mountain and experienced the magic of Mother Nature. As a result, they too fell in love with the park.

This time Seth and I wanted to explore new and more challenging hikes with them. So we shared the trial maps, read the description of the hikes and let them decide on our daily adventures. They choose to start with some familiar, easier hikes where we shared memories from our first hikes in the park. Then, they wanted to try the more challenging Beehive Trail because of the cliff climbs and incredible vistas.

Caitlin bounded up the entire trail like a mountain goat. I tried to keep up, but instead of leaping like a billy goat I often found myself crawling on my hands and knees. The steel ladders stapled into the side of mountain left me shaking and crawling. To Caitlin’s credit, she waited at the top of each ladder climb reaching out her hand and asking, “Mom, do you want some help?” Each time, I eloquently responded through clenched teeth, “You can help by just standing still for one minute.”

Seth and Nolan were behind me because Nolan has a fear of heights, and I was to be his “guide.” However,  Nolan just kept yelling at me, “Mom, stop saying, ‘Oh my God’ in that shaky voice. It’s NOT helping.” So our trek up the Beehive wasn’t always pretty, but we did make it to the peak. And like seasoned hikers, we proudly celebrated our accomplishment with a few photos, apples and trail mix.

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Nolan and Caitlin posing proudly after completing the Beehive Trail.  Photo Credit: Jen Stratton

Over dinner, we retold our versions of the climb which sounded as triumphant as climbing Mt. Everest. With this boost in confidence, the kids decided they wanted to try a two-peak hike. The next day we would climb to the top of Acadia, enjoy a snack, and then transverse to the top of St. Sauveur Mountain. It would be a four-mile up and down journey, but we felt ready for the trek.

However, it didn’t take long before our confidence bubble started to deflate. Only a mile in we realized that I had left the second water bottle in the car that was parked at the trailhead. Who needs water when hiking four miles up two peaks in oppressive August heat? Okay, maybe we weren’t totally prepared. But more importantly, we had faith in ourselves.

Within an hour we reached the top of Acadia. It was stunning to look out over the mountains and ocean. Between the cool breeze, healthy snacks, and a few sips of water from our one bottle, we were ready to traverse to our next peak. The terrain was rocky, and we often found ourselves scrambling up boulders. It was a tough 2.5 miles. As we approached the summit of St. Sauveur, our pace slowed even more and the kids started to ask, “How much further?” One behind the other, Caitlin and Nolan trudged along. Nolan started to describe how the sweat was dripping down their backs. Caitlin shared that her legs burned. But…they never complained. They never asked to stop or give up. They just kept going one foot in front of another. After a long hour of slow yet steady steps, we rounded the bend to the summit.

At that moment, Caitlin exclaimed, “Mom, I have GRIT!”

Yes! Caitlin used my favorite four-letter word to describe her experience, her triumph…herself. She recognized that there will be times when we want to give up on our journey, times when we are experiencing physical and/or emotional pain that will make us doubt our own abilities, but it is during these times that we need to stay focused on our goal and to dig deep. 

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All of us on the top of Acadia Mountain. Photo Credit: A Kind Hiker

Caitlin experienced the power of grit on a mountaintop, but she learned it from her cousin, Nick Springer. He is one of the grittiest guys we know. She also recently observed grit in action when we watched the 2016 Rio Paralympics Games. During the Games, she watched Team Possible members Abby Dunkin , Mackenzie Soldan  and the gritty USA women’s wheelchair basketball team win a gold. In the pool she watched Cortney Jordan add to her medal count; while the gritty veteran, Brad Snyder set a world record in 100M freestyle. These champions embody grit and grace.

Caitlin and I love how Mackenzie Soldan defines grit:

“Grit is a good word. I would say it is taking a situation and fighting your way through it. Sometimes you have to fight for a long time, and sometimes it’s for shorter periods of time. Grit is having the drive to achieve something you want and not letting anything stop you. Even if it takes beating down the same problem or obstacle again and again. To have grit you don’t have to be a tough person, it is just a choice that you can make for yourself.”

So what choice are you going to make for yourself? We choose GRIT!