Marcus Kadinger Makes His Hoop Dreams a Reality

Playing ball at the college level was always a dream for Marcus Kadinger, but he didn’t think it was possible. During his junior of high school basketball, everything started to shift. With determination and lots of hard work, Marcus received honorable mention to All-Conference. It was then that playing at the college level started to become a reality for Marcus. With the continuous support of his parents and coaches who believed in him, Marcus started to dream big. This month, Marcus Kadinger just completed his senior year playing basketball for Marian University in Wisconsin. Here is his sports story about making his hoop dreams a reality…

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Marcus Kadinger playing for Marian University. Photo Credit: Marian University Athletics

What steps helped you achieve your dream of playing college basketball?

I was never a star player, but coaches told me I was a special kind of player. I was a team guy first. At a clinic, one coach encouraged me by telling me that I was one of the hardest players on the court. He noticed that I would put in the extra effort to get the rebound, or make the pass, or to defend the ball. He said, “You play hard every single second.”

Being a one-handed player, what adaptations or modifications did you need to make to develop your game?

When I was younger, I was uncomfortable using my left side. I learned to use a quick first step to get around the defender. My jump shot developed naturally, and slowly I became more confident. Eventually, I learned one or two quick moves on my left side, which the defenders were not expecting and then a spin move. I just had to play smarter.

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Marcus taking a quick first step to get by a defender. Photo Credit: Leader Telegram

What challenges did you face during your basketball career?

I was always my own worst critic. Sometimes, I had confidence issues which made meeting new people hard. I had to learn to embrace my differences and not let them alienate me from people. Being an amputee, it’s just… I didn’t ever meet anyone like me.

Who has inspired you along your sports journey?

My dad. My parents have been very influential. They were always encouraging me.

When I was younger Coach Booth made a big impact on me. He taught me that life is bigger than basketball. He would ask me, “What are you doing to be a good person?” He always included everyone on the team. Everyone had a role.

I have a one-handed basketball player in my house. What advice do you have for my son, Ian?

I went to a lot of camps. You have to learn to move with the ball, to dribble in and out, and you have to push yourself to train like everyone else. You have to try to dribble on both sides, even for just one or two moments. The more you try it, the more confident you become. I really didn’t start dribbling on my left side in a game until middle school. I wished I had tried sooner.

What are your post-college dreams for yourself?

I am graduating this year as a psychology major. Eventually, I would like to work at Shriner’s Hospitals for Children and counsel children who are amputees like me. Of course, I will always want basketball in my life. So, I hope to continue to work at summer camps, coach summer league, and someday coach at the high school level.

What advice do you have for parents and coaches of athletes with limb differences?

You need to let kids figure it out on their own. Let them do it their way. Be there for them and keep encouraging them to keep trying. They will always find a way.

How would you define ability?

Ability is your desire to act on your God-given gifts. We all have unique gifts.  It is just up to us to pursue them.

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Marcus demonstrating his ability and grit. Photo Credit: Leader Telegram

How would you define grit?

Grit is mental toughness. It is getting through adverse situations and keeping your head held high.

Marcus is an impressive student-athlete who plans to make a difference in this world by working with young people. In our house, we have already benefited from Marcus’ positive attitude and encouragement. After seeing videos of Marcus play basketball and hearing that Marcus was encouraging Ian to dribble with his left side, he gave it a try. First in practice, and then in his last basketball, Ian dribbled twice with his “little hand” while bringing the ball down the court. Thank you, Marcus, for being a role model and sharing your sports story! Keep believing in the Possible!

Telling the Truth

Telling the truth is not always easy. As a non-fiction writer, I now find myself immersed in digging around and finding ways to explain the truth to children through my writing. Therefore, when I was asked by a local elementary teacher to speak to the second graders at her school, I felt I had to be honest and apologetically replied, “But I haven’t ‘published’ anything yet.”

“Yes, I know which is fine. You are just like our students with their ‘Works in Progress.’ It is perfect,” she responded. I sighed a deep breathe of relief and started planning for my visit.

As I thought more about it, I realized I have a very broad view of writing that includes a collection of my children’s earliest messages which look like scribbles to the outsider, but carry great meaning. I started to wonder why their hieroglyphic messages were valuable enough for me to keep hidden away in a treasure box while my unpublished picture book biography and blog posts were not enough to justify my work as a writer. So I started to realize that maybe the truth was…I am a writer with many “Works in Progress.”

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That’s me holding my graphic organizer displaying the very messy process of my “Work in Progress.” Photo Credit: Beth Mengwasser

With this newfound belief in myself as a writer, I visited the second graders and shared my writing process. I showed them how messy writing is and how I use graphic organizers to plan out my work. I explained how I revise and revise again using different colored pens and sticky notes. I even admitted that I often have to walk around and frequently write standing up. I even confessed that I am not so good at sitting still and that I have green putty at my desk to help me concentrate.

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A thank you note from Aeson. Photo Credit: Jen Stratton

I then talked about why I write and how I am writing to solve a problem that I found on the library bookshelves. I told them that in my research I could not find picture books about athletes who play adaptive sports. So, to solve that problem I am writing books and blog posts about people with exceptionalities who play sports. The students were amazed at the accomplishments of the athletes in the sports stories that I shared.

After telling them about Nick Springer, a wheelchair rugby player, quad-amputee and the subject of my first book, one boy raised his hand and asked how Nick could catch or throw a ball without hands. I said, “I think we need to shift our perspective here. I need you to not look at Nick’s disability, but how he is exceptional. I need you to think about how he can do things in exceptional ways.” A hand then popped up from a girl in the front row and she demonstrated how Nick could use his elbows and residual limbs to throw or catch the ball. Then, more hands shot up and the students started shouting out ways they thought Nick could do anything from playing wheelchair rugby to driving.

In the end the visit exceeded my expectations because I was able to tell the truth about my  writing process while sharing the awesome stories of athletes I have met who play adaptive sports. And, to my surprise by telling the truth about my messy writing process, I was able to validate the writing experience of those students who learn differently. Overall, it was a great visit, and to be honest I hope to do more in the future. Until then, I will keep working on telling the amazing true stories of athletes who redefine the possible.

Keep believing in the possible!

Jen

P.S. If you would like me to speak at your school or organization, just email me at jlstrattonpossiblebooks@gmail.com.

McKenna Dahl: On Target for Rio 2016

Introducing McKenna Dahl, the youngest member of the USA Shooting Team. She is on target for Rio 2016.

Hometown: I am from outside of Seattle, Washington. But, I currently reside at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado while I am training full time.

What sport or sports do you play? Shooting is my main sport now. Before I moved out here I was on a wheelchair basketball team, a disability baseball team, and I used to swim as well.

Why did you start focusing on shooting? I was into swimming originally, and my best friend was on the team. Our dream was to go to the London 2012 Paralympic Games together for swimming. She was in a different classification than me and she was improving, but with my disability I am missing some muscles. So I just was never as fast as some of the other swimmers.  Then, I was introduced to shooting and I fell in love with it. I finally realized that I could go further in shooting than I could in swimming.

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McKenna Dahl is taking aim at reaching her Paralympic dreams. Photo Credit: USShooting.org

What is your sports story? I got started shooting through Camp Access, a camp for children with disabilities, in Washington.  The director of the camp took everyone who was over the age of 12  shooting. So the year I turned 12, I got to go shooting. A few months later, the camp director invited me to go to a competition and I ended up beating him.  Then, several months later, I was invited to Paralympic training center. There I caught the attention of the national coach and was eventually able to earn a spot on the national Paralympic development team which means I have the potential to medal at a World Cup.  In August 2014, I was the first female and the first American to earn a quoted spot for the 2016 Paralympics in Brazil.

What accomplishments in sports are you most proud of? Earning the quoted slot was probably one of my biggest accomplishments. That means we can send an athlete to Rio, and I am proud I earned that for our country. It was pretty cool because I did that just three months after graduating high school. I am also the youngest member on the team.  Most members of the team are men who are at least 10 years older than me.

What is your workout schedule? On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I train from 8-12pm on the range shooting. Then, I brake for lunch. After lunch, I workout from 1-3 pm that is when I focus on strength and conditioning with the trainer. It might include weights, core work, and cardio. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I don’t have an afternoon workout. So I try to get in another training session on the range. In the evenings I do school work because I take on-line classes. I am studying to get my BA in business and technical management with a specialization in criminal justice. I have been thinking about becoming a lawyer.

What’s your mantra that keeps you going during tough workouts or bad days? My motivation comes from the desire to get to the dream I have been working toward since I was 12. (FYI: McKenna will be 20 on May 1st.)

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McKenna shooting for Team USA. Photo Courtesy of McKenna Dahl.

What superpowers do you possess? Determination is a big one. Also, knowing that I can do anything I set my mind to. It just may take me a little more time to do it. I have learned to never give up on anything.

How would you define ability? Let me think about that for a minute that is a good question… Ability is not letting limitations define what you can do. If you can’t do something, it’s about finding another way to do it. It is working around any challenges you have.

How would you define grit? The ability to keep pushing through any bumps in the road that life throws at you. It’s never going to be perfect, but to persevere through everything.

What advice do you have for other athletes? To never give up. There will be difficult situations that you will have to work through, but you will learn a lot about yourself as you keep pushing forward.

Who would you like to thank? I would love to thank my parents for getting me started in all of this. They bought me my first gun. My dad got me an electronic target system and pushed aside his woodworking shop to build me a range. I also want to thank all of the people who have helped me along the way.

To stay up to date on McKenna’s progress follow her on FaceBook. You can also show your support for her journey to 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio at Go Fund Me.

Josh Kennison: Track Star

Introducing Joshua Kennison from Norway, Maine. Josh is a track star, Camp No Limits  mentor, and an incredible role model for young aspiring athletes.

What sports do you play? I am a track and field athlete. I run the 100 meter and 200 meter dash. In my free time I also play soccer, basketball and frisbee.

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Josh with his bronze medal from the 2013 World Championship in the 100 meter dash. Photo Credit: Portland Press For video of his race click here.

What is your sports story? I’ve always been an athlete ever since I could walk. In middle and high school, I played soccer and ran track. During those years, I never had fancy running legs. In 2008 I started the process of getting some running legs. In 2009, I ran my first track meet for the Paralympics. Ever since then, I have been traveling nationally and internationally, and in 2012 I was one of the top five in my classification in the 100 and 200. I just missed qualifying for the 2012 London Games.

What accomplishments in sports are you most proud of? I am most proud of representing the US in 2013 World Championship. There I won the bronze in the 100 meter dash. In 2012, I l broke the world record in long jump, and I held the record for about a year.

What is your workout schedule? Monday through Friday I train two hours a day on the track. Each session usually includes working on my running technique work, power work where I pull a weight sled, and agility stuff. Every day has it’s own group of muscles I work. Then, Saturday or Sunday is core work.

What songs are on your workout playlist? I only listen to music during my warm-up. I usually listen to hip-hop and R&B. I like a variety.

What’s your mantra that keeps you going during tough workouts or bad days? You can do anything you set your mind to as long as you have a positive mind set.

What superpowers do you possess? I have a sixth sense. I can sense who someone is as a person. I pay attention to the small details.

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Josh competing in long jump. Photo Credit: AchieveMagazine.com

How would you define ability? I would define ability like this…I think everyone can do anything they set their mind to.  It’s up to you. Every day in life I try to make myself happy. When I am happy and positive, I can accomplish a lot more.

How would you define grit? I think grit is messy. It is working so hard that you are reaching for every ounce of energy you can provide yourself.

What advice do you have for other athletes? Help one another. Athletes who care about others and their sport are better people.

Who would you like to thank? I want to thank my mom for sure. She never let me think I couldn’t do something.

You can follow Josh on his road to Rio and beyond on Twitter: @Nubz89 or Instagram: @Nubz8919.

To hear more about Josh’s story in his own words check out KSBW News Report.

UPDATE: You can hear about Josh’s transition from athlete to coach in his recent interview.

Trish Downing: A Straight Shooter

Introducing Tricia Downing, a multi-sport athlete, author, keynote speaker and director for Camp Discovery, a camp for women in wheelchairs who want to explore fitness opportunities.  She is truly redefining ability for others, and she’s got grit!

Hometown: Denver, Colorado

What sport or sports do you play? I am a competitive shooter. I shoot air pistol and sport pistol. I am also a former triathlete.

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Trish Downing ready to race. Photo Credit: Mark Woolcott Photography

What is your sports story? I’ll try to give you the short story. I was a competitive cyclist in 2000, and I was out on a training ride on September 17th when I was hit by car. Then, I was paralyzed from the chest down. I was treated at Craig Hospital here in Colorado and their rec-therapy department is very good. They said, “You came in here as an athlete, and we want to make sure you leave an athlete.” They helped me learn all of the sports I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to be a hand cyclist because I was a cyclist. So I learned how to hand cycle. They taught me to use a racing chair. They also got me back into the pool. When I got out of the hospital I decided I didn’t want to go back to hand cycling because most of the races at that time were held in conjunction with bike racing. That was just hard- mentally and emotionally for me, so I ended up doing triathlons. At that time, there really weren’t a lot of people in chairs doing triathlons. I knew of a couple of men who had done the Ironman, but on the local level in women sports I didn’t know of anyone doing them. I had to figure it out on my own. Fortunately, I had a really great support crew of friends including my cycling coach and my cycling teammates.

Then, I started getting the Ironman bug and wanted to go to Hawaii to do the Ironman. My first Ironman  was in 2005, and I qualified for Hawaii in 2006 and 2010. Altogether, I started six Ironman races and finished two because I  didn’t always make the time cut. The time cut is established on able-bodied athletes, and for a female in a wheelchair, it is a very difficult time to make.

In the spring of 2011 I got recruited to try out for USA rowing.  But I pushed too hard and too fast, and ended up injured.  I then had to have a variety of surgeries and could no longer go back to doing triathlons.  Now, my main sport is shooting because it is not a stress on my body. But, it is a very difficult mental game. I have only been shooting for one year, however,  I am focused on making it to Tokyo in 2020.

What accomplishments in sports are you most proud of? My first Ironman I did in 2005 and the Half Ironman I did to qualify for Hawaii in 2010. Those were both good races for me and great examples of how my hard work and efforts paid off for me.

What is your workout schedule? When I was getting ready for the World Cup I was shooting six days a week. I do shooting drills at home and at the range.

I also do work outs that I enjoy like endurance sports. Additionally, I am working on my mental training with a mental coach. Unlike endurance sports where you can focus on just pushing harder, in shooting it is the opposite. You can’t push harder. It is a finesse thing. You have to be calm and mentally clear-headed.

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Trish ready to push until the end. Photo Credit: TriciaDowning.com

What’s your mantra that keeps you going during tough workouts or bad days? It isn’t over until it’s over… because in 2006 I did the qualifier for the Ironman in Hawaii. It was a half Ironman in Texas and it was a very difficult race. To qualify you have to finish the course in eight hours, and this course was a beast. So I was there doing it and I was a good four miles from the finish when the eight hour time expired. I just stopped in the road and had a little meltdown. My husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, and friend told me to just cross the finish line even though I wouldn’t qualify. Then, I cross the finish and I find out they changed the time cut to eight and half hours. I ended up finishing in 8:29:46. So, I made it by 14 seconds. See, it’s not over until it’s over.

What superpowers do you possess? My superpower is the power of persistence. When I truly want something or have a challenge to overcome, I will do everything within my means to make it happen. I don’t like to give up…at anything…and even sometimes to the detriment of myself. In the past that has been everything from physical to financial, but I will always keep trying to find new avenues and creative ideas to make my dreams and goals come true. Sometimes that can work against me, because I do believe there is a time to let certain goals go, but for the most part it has served me well.

How would you define ability? Ability is not necessarily about doing things. It’s about being able to live your life, your way, in a way that makes you happy at best and content at worst.

How would you define grit? Grit is the ability to keep fighting for what you want regardless of the circumstances that are handed to you. Being able to persist and to be resilient.

What advice do you have for other athletes? To always find ways to improve your situation. You have to keep your mind open to different ideas and ways of thinking. You have to be flexible and always look for more answers.

Who would you like to thank? There are so many people in my world to thank, it would be impossible to mention them all. I have a wonderfully supportive family that has not only supported me my whole life, but were instrumental in getting me through my accident and equally important are the people I have been fortunate to surround myself with. I pride myself on being a good judge of character and I have some amazing friends who have gone to the ends of the earth to help me achieve my dreams.

Be sure to check out more about Trish and all of her incredible work at her website. Or learn more about Camp Discovery and her She’s Got Grit video series.

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Tricia Downing with her book, Cycle of Hope: A Journey from Paralysis to Possibility  Photo Credit: TriciaDowning.com

Jim Abbott: MLB Baseball Pitcher

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Jim Abbott playing for the California Angels. Photo Credit: Jim Abbott.net

It was a hot summer day when I convinced my parents to let me drive to a Red Sox game at Fenway with some friends. I desperately wanted to make the 90 mile trek to cheer on one of my favorite players and to see in person his unique pitching technique. It wasn’t Roger Clemens, but Jim Abbott from the California Angels who I admired and wanted to see play.

I don’t remember all of the details of the games, but I do remember sitting at the edge of my seat every time Abbott took the mound. I was amazed at how he threw the ball, managed his glove and kept his composure throughout every inning. I remember feeling stronger, more capable and inspired by his performance. He had mastered every aspect of a traditionally two-handed game with one hand.

Recently, when I was reflecting on sports moments that have shaped my life, and I thought of that game. It led me to emailing Jim Abbott in hopes to do an interview with him after all of these years. And to my amazement, Jim agreed.

What impressed me about the interview with Jim was his humility and belief in the human spirit to grow from challenges. I gained a lot of insight about life on and off the field from this well-read, articulate and compassionate man. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to see him play, and after all of these years to speak with him about his sports story.

What is your sports story?

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Jim batting for the Angels. Photo Credit: Jim Abbott.net

My story is simple, yet probably a bit complicated. I loved sports. I loved to play. I loved to compete, and I grew up in the midwest where sports were an important component of my hometown. Also, all of the people I looked up to were athletes- either at the high school, college, or professional level. And, I wanted to be like them.

I was born missing my right hand.  There were a lot of aspects to being different that, maybe consciously or unconsciously, developed my love for sports. I just wanted to compete and fit in on a team. I was fortunate enough to do it for a long time and play at the highest levels. All the while, I was learning from those many experiences.

Growing up I had a lot of insecurities. I had a lot of moments that I didn’t know if I could do what was being asked of me. But, I was surrounded by great teachers, parents and coaches who put me on the teams. And when I came across a situation that I hadn’t dealt with before like maybe holding a bat a little bit differently or switching the glove on and off, they helped me find ways and devise strategies. For all the credit I have received for my accomplishments, those folks probably deserve as much or even more.

What sports accomplishments are you most proud of?

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Jim pitching for University of Michigan Photo Credit: Baseball Almanac.com

I am very proud of growing up in my hometown of Flint, Michigan. It was tough town. But, it was a great town to grow up in because I was presented with a diverse set up experiences that helped me gain many different perspectives. I am proud I played sports there. Flint has a great athletic history, and I am really proud to be a part of that history.

Going to the University of Michigan was a huge accomplishment and is probably one of my proudest affiliations. I am fortunate to have attended school there and to have been part of a Big Ten championship team. It  meant a lot to me.

I am also proud to have played on the1988  United States Olympic Team. It was an incredible moment. And I am even proud of my pre-major leagues play, where you are fighting and grinding to make it. When I look back at those times, I am really proud of those moments.

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Jim leads Team USA to Gold at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea over Japan. Photo Credit: Jim Abbott.net

You’re response surprises me. Your answer has to do more with your roots, who you are and where you come from, and it is less about your professional career or the fact that you pitched a no-hitter when playing for the Yankees.

I’m not trying to be disingenuous. Maybe I am just getting sentimental as I get older, but really those things just mean a lot to me. Without that foundation, the rest of it just doesn’t fall into place.

How would you define ability?

Literally, I would define it as what you are capable of doing. In the context I would like to think about it, I would say, “Are you making the most of what you are capable of doing?” We have to challenge ourselves each and every day. You need to ask yourself if you are pushing the limits of your own abilities.

I was recently reading a new book released by Thaler and Koval, Grit to Great. They mention you and the role of grit in your career as a baseball player. How would you define grit?

Wow, that’s great. I didn’t know that I was mentioned in that book.

Grit is resiliency. I think of grit as toughness. It is the edginess that it takes to believe in yourself in moments of doubt and difficulty.

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Imperfect: An Improbable Life by Jim Abbott and Tim Brown Photo Credit: Jim Abbott.net

I know you have co-authored a book with Tim Brown titles, Imperfect: An Improbable Life,  about your life experiences in sports. What books have inspired you throughout your career?

Oh gosh, there are a lot of great books that have inspired me. I have a whole bookshelf full of books that are dog-eared and have highlighted pages. The biggest one to me is probably not something you would guess, and it might surprise you. It was suggested by a great mentor in my life, Harvey Dorfman. He was wonderful at providing perspective on and off the field. His way of teaching often included giving books, and usually they had nothing to do with sports. In fact, most of them were novels. One time he gave me the book, All the Pretty Horses written by Cormac McCarthy. I loved the book, but in particular there was a passage about three-quarters of the way through the book where this older lady was engaged in a conversation with the protagonist of the book and she talked about losing a hand later in her life. She was telling this younger kid what this experience meant to her and how it shaped her world view. When Harvey gave me the book, he never mentioned the scene. But when I read it, I knew immediately why he had given it to me. Forever, I have been impacted by what Cormac McCarthy wrote and I agree with it. It has even been a real guiding point in my life. I am amazed he was able to write that piece having had two hands. He showed an incredible amount of empathy for that woman. It really stuck with me, and it still does.

What advice do you have for young athletes?

Love it. Embrace it. That love and passion can be a driving force to getting better at whatever it is you do or play. Find what it is you love to do. Then, work, practice and lose yourself in it. Don’t worry so much about the results. Embrace it, learn from it and try again tomorrow.

What advice do you have for their parents and coaches?

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Jim Abbott meeting a young player. Photo Credit: Jim Abbott.net

Well… I have all kinds of advice, but if I follow any of it myself is another story. I actually think my parents were better at this stuff than I am. I can’t really articulate how they did it, but the greatest thing they taught me or helped me to believe was that I was up to the challenge. I was different and it was challenging, but I was up to it.

My dad would say, “What was taken away once will be given back twice.” I think he really encouraged me to look at the blessings as opposed to the negatives. It was that repetitive message that helped me believe that I could do anything. Having one hand did not have to define me, and I could do whatever I set my mind to accomplishing.

Helping your kids to believe that they are up to the challenge is a fantastic gift. Challenge comes to all of us, day in and day out, and the confidence to face it is a gift.

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All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy Photo credit: Amazon.com

Any additional comments or thoughts? No, I feel like I’ve been going on and on…Well, there is one quote I want to share from the Cormac McCarthy book. I’m paraphrasing a bit, but he states, “Those who have endured some misfortune will always be set apart. It is just that misfortune that is their gift and their strength.” And I believe that… I truly believe that. I believe misfortunate and being set a part can be tough, but it can be a gift. It can be a strength.

I agree and in our house when I talk with my kids about challenges we also discuss how they create complimentary gifts or superpowers. So do you have any superpowers? No, I don’t have a super power, but that is an interesting question. You know…when I think about it, the resistance that I have faced from having one hand has given me empathy. Empathy is my superpower. I really feel for people and their struggle. I have empathy for what people go through in life. I give people credit for their struggles.   

Who would you nominate to be featured on Team Possible? You know who is really cool and I admire is a young MMA fighter, Nick Newell.

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MMA Champion Nick Newell Photo Credit: http://orangectlive.com/

Great news! Nick trains in my hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts and has already agreed to be featured in an upcoming blog. So keep reading and believing in the possible!

Malat Wei: Believer in the Power of Sports

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Malat with the flag of his birthplace, South Sudan. Photo Credit: Malat Wei

In honor of International Day of Persons with Disabilities, I want to share Malat Wei’s story. It is a truly remarkable story that is full of hope and demonstrates the power of sports.

Malat was born in South Sudan during the second civil war. At the age of three, Malat contracted polio, which left him with paralysis in his lower limbs. At the age of five, Malat and his family had to leave their home in war-torn South Sudan to seek refuge in Ethiopia. During their journey, they walked hundreds of miles, slept in the jungle and crossed dangerous rivers. Once at the refugee camp, Malat started to create a new life- one that embraced the power of sports.

What is your sports story? 

My sports life started when I was in the refugee camp called (Dimma) in Ethiopia where all the South Sudanese families stayed because of the war that was going on in Sudan. The camp was full of so many tribes. The two biggest tribes were Dinka and Nuer. In order for us to get along in the camp, we had to learn each other’s languages.

I was the only “different” kid in the village, but not less.  I did everything with my friends from climbing fruits trees, to going to the river to fish, to building huts, and so much more. I got along with all the kids, and I spoke both languages, which made it easier to build friendships.

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Soccer ball made of plastic bags and twine. Photo Credit: pps.org

One day, I was bored and I saw all my friends playing soccer with a ball made out of plastic bags and twine. They played for hours in the hot sun. In the back of my mind, I said “If I go out there and join them, what will they think?” I had all kinds of questions going on in my mind at that moment, but I stopped overthinking it and went out. I yelled at my friend to pass me the ball, and he did. I hit the soccer ball back to him really hard with my hand.  He couldn’t believe what had just happened. From then on, I played soccer with my hands. For ten years, I would crawl in the dirt or mud and over rocks just to play. 

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This hut is similar to the hut Malat lived in with his family while at the refugee camp in Ethiopia. Photo Credit: Malat Wei

Growing up in the refugee camp, I didn’t feel alienated. All the kids knew who I was because I was the only kid that was on the ground playing soccer with able-bodied kids. Soccer was the only sport all the kids played in the village. We did not have everything we needed, but we appreciated what we had. We just kept on living and hoping one day something wonderful was going to happen to us. One of my biggest dreams was to come to America, and it came true.

In 2006, I came to America with my family not knowing any English. We struggled learning it, but eventually we wrapped our heads around it. Now, we speak and write it. In 2008, I started to hang out with some of the kids in my apartment complex and going to the park. At that time I had a big hospital chair with one broken leg rest. I started playing basketball with the kids at the park, and they kept telling me I should play wheelchair basketball. I told them that I didn’t know anything about wheelchair sports. One of my friends told me to go look it up on the internet. I did not have a computer or know how to use one. So I went to church one Sunday and asked my church friends if they knew anything about wheelchair sports. They said, “No.” But, they agreed to search online about it for me. The next Sunday, they told me that they had found a center near where I lived. It was about a 30 minute drive.

On Monday, one of my friends picked me up and we drove me to the center. I was very exited. I couldn’t wait! When we got there, I met Peggy Turner who welcomed me with open arms. I still remember everything like it was yesterday. She showed me pictures of all kinds of wheelchair sports on the wall. There were pictures of wheelchair basketball, wheelchair track, wheelchair ruby, and so much more.

Then, she saved the best for last! We headed down the hall to where the action was going down. Before we even got in the gym, I could hear the wheelchairs banging and the players yelling. Peggy opened the door, and I rolled in with my big hospital chair.  All the players stopped playing and greeted me. They couldn’t believe the chair I was sitting in. My chair was heavy and very wide. Their wheelchairs were light and fitted. One player let me try his sports chair.  When I got in it, I couldn’t stop pushing around the gym. The wheelchair was very light and fast. I had speed, but I didn’t know how to pick up the ball from the ground. One of the players leaned over and showed me how to pick up the ball. I practiced picking the ball up several times until it was easy.  That day, I knew this was where I belonged.  

What sports accomplishments are you most proud of? 

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Malat playing proudly for Team USA Photo Credit: FaceBook Malat Wei

I am mostly proud of helping my team bring the first National Championship to Houston, Texas. It was the first championship since the program started.

I am also proud of  being  selected to try out for the Under 23 USA National Team. Not too many players in the country get selected, but I ended up on the wood floor with the future Paralympic ball players. It was such an honor to wear those three letters on my chest. Hopefully, one day I will wear them again on the big stage to represent the greatest country on the planet, USA, and my home-country of South Sudan. 

What is your training schedule?  

Currently, I am playing professional wheelchair basketball in France. On Mondays, I shoot around for 2 hours and later do cardio. On Tuesdays, I shoot around in the afternoon and then practice with the team in the evenings for two hours. On Thursdays, I shoot around and lift weights. I practice with the team on Fridays and have games on Saturdays. 

What is on your playlist when you are working out? 

I have all kinds of music on my phone, but I don’t listen to it most of the time.  Instead, I listen to motivational speakers like Eric Thomas, Les Brown, and Tony Robbins. I like to feed my brain with positive words.

What books inspire you?

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Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela Photo Credit: Amazon.com

I love to read. I have read many inspiring books. Some of my favorites are: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, The Power Of Thinking Positive by Normal Vincent Peale, Your Best Life Now by Joel Osteen, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney, Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, and of course, The Bible.

What’s your mantra that keeps you going on tough workouts or bad days? 

What keeps me going in life is my family. My family is everything.  They are my weakness and my strength. Next is my country of South Sudan. There are so many disabled kids and wounded warriors there who are struggling to live each day. They are not enjoying life and playing sports like I am doing. I think is my responsibility to return to them and help them out. Lastly, all the people who are doubting me. I will prove them wrong.

How do you define ability? 

I think we all have an ability to be something in this world. It’s up to you to bring it out. When you find it, nothing can stop you whether it is in sports or life. Before we came out of our mother’s womb, we have the ability to be someone. But this world is full of people who want to bring us down and that is why it takes so long to become who we are meant to be.

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Malat showing his grit and his strength. Photo Credit: Malat Wei

How do you define grit?

Grit is something inside you that keeps you going, no matter what. Grit is when you tell yourself, “I can. Instead of, I can’t.” Basically, it is not giving up on your goal. William Hernandez is one of the grittiest individuals I know. When Willie was a college student, he had a vision to change the way the sport chair and everyday chair look. As an engineering student at UTA, he started Per4Max wheelchair Company where he designed these chairs and built them. In the first year, the company sold one chair. But, he never gave up because his “WHY” was bigger than him. He saw the vision clearly. His dream was to change the lives of people in the wheelchair community, and he finally made it happen with his partners. When you know your “WHY,” nothing can stop you.

What superpowers do you possess?

When you are having a bad day and you come around me, you will have a positive day! Ha!Ha! I think that is my superpower!

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Malat smiling on the court and in life. Photo Credit: Malat Wei

What advice do you have for other athletes?

Always have a positive attitude around your teammates. A positive attitude will get you wherever you want to go in life, and not just in sports. Try all kinds of sports. If you don’t feel comfortable with that particular sport, then move on to the next one. Keep going until you find the sport that suits you best. Then, inspire other people to be positive and to be themselves. Appreciate every single moment in life. When people are doubting you, just handle the pressure like a diamond and shine on. Finally, don’t be amazed… be amazing and have lots of fun!

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Malat with his family. Photo Credit: Malat Wei

Who would you like to thank?

First of all, I would like to thank my mother who brought me and my four siblings to the land of opportunity to escape the war zone. I would not have made it to America without her. I put God first, but my mother is the next in line. That’s how much respect I have for her. I would also like to thank all the people who have supported me from the first day I landed in Houston. I would really like to thank my friends in the sports world who have helped me to develop my game.

Any other additional comments you want to share?

Yes, let’s make the world a better place for everyone. Let’s create a place where we all care about one another and treat each other with equality, respect and love.

Jesse Billauer: Adaptive Surfing World Champion & Founder of Life Rolls On

Jesse Billauer Twitter

Jesse Billauer Photo Credit: Twitter

Introducing adaptive surfing world champion and founder of Life Rolls On, Jesse Billauer. This interview is short and sweet, but full of insights to living life passionately.

Name: Jesse Billauer

Hometown: Los Angeles, California

What sports do you play? I enjoy surfing and fishing. That’s what I do.

World Champion Photo Credit: Life Rolls On

World Champion Photo Credit: Life Rolls On

What accomplishments in sports are you most proud of? Last weekend, I won the first adaptive world surf championship. I also started Life Rolls On, a non-profit  organization that offers quality of life programs because after getting injured I wanted to give back to the community. We run “They Will Surf Again’” and “They Will Skate Again” programs across the country.

What is your sports story? I was growing up as a surfer on the verge of being professional, and then I got injured. But now, I continue to surf around the world. I’ve surfed in Morocco, Australia, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Hawaii.

Jesse in the barrell. Photo Credit: isaworlds.com

Jesse in the barrell. Photo Credit: isaworlds.com

What’s your mantra that keeps you going? I always have something to look forward in life, whether it’s a nice day or a good swell rolling in.

How would you define ability? Ability is following your passion and being active in life.

How would you define grit? Reaching down in your heart and doing the best that you can.

What advice do you have for other athletes? Just continue to be better.  Practice, learn and ask people questions. Then, go out there and do what you love.

What superpowers do you possess? Superpowers…I pay attention to details like people’s emotion feeling and my surroundings.

How can people get involved with Life Rolls On? They can go to LifeRollsOn.org. They can come out to volunteer, participate or even donate.

Who would you like to thank? My friends, families and sponsors.

Any other additional comments: Never give up on your hopes and your dreams. When you think there is nothing out there for you, there is always an opportunity out there for everybody.

Check out more on Jesse’s surfing sports story: 

Mackenzie Soldan: Wheelchair Tennis and Basketball Champion

Mackenzie Soldan is a fierce competitor. Her athletic abilities have led her to gold medals on the tennis and basketball courts. In the 2012 London Paralympic Games, Mackenzie was on the USA Wheelchair Tennis Team. Now, she has her eyes set on the 2016 Rio Paralymics and being a part of the women’s wheelchair basketball team. Here is her awesome sports story…

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Mackenzie winning the gold in tennis. Photo Credit: PBS Video

Name: Mackenzie Soldan

Hometown: Hemlock, Michigan 

What sport or sports do you play? I play wheelchair tennis and basketball.

Team USA Women's Wheelchair Basketball showing off their gold medals at the 2015 Parapan Games in Toronto. Photo Credit: NWBA (@NWBA) twitter.com

Team USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball showing off their gold medals at the 2015 Parapan Games in Toronto. Photo Credit: NWBA (@NWBA) twitter.com

What accomplishments in sports are you most proud of? The most recent one was in Toronto with the US Women’s Basketball Team, and we won the gold at the 2015 Parapan Games. It was cool being a part of a team and having worked toward that goal for the past three years. Another accomplishment I am proud of was in the 2011 ParaPan Games when I won two golds for tennis. I wasn’t even supposed to go, which made it even more amazing. One of the players had to drop out last minute, and I got a call to play. At the time, I wasn’t even playing tennis because I was focusing on basketball. When I first got there, I was playing terribly. Then, somehow I ended up working through it. Each match was less ugly than the one before.

Mackenzie Tennis Medal usta.com

On the podium. Photo Credit: USTA

How did you pull through to win the gold? I think it was my competitive drive. I just don’t like losing at all. Even though, I was not in the best tennis shape that I could have been in, I have very high expectations for myself and it pushed me past any excuses I could have made.  Then, I just took it point by point.

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Team USA rallying to win the gold at 2015 Parapan Games. Photo Credit: Christian Academy

How does that competitiveness work when you are a team player? It is hard. In an individual sport like tennis, it allows for you to get frustrated with yourself because you are only letting yourself down. In basketball, you have your team.  So you have to have that competitive drive, but you can’t let your frustration take you away from your role on the team. You have four other players on the court working hard, and you can’t let them down. It is definitely a balance.

Mackenzie BBall TeamUSA.org

Pushing hard. Photo Credit: TeamUSA.org

What is your sports story? My sports story is still continuing on right now. I’m just an average little girl that grew up in Michigan. My parents have guided me through this entire journey. Sports are simply something that I have always done and needed to do. They are a part of who I am. I do sports because they feel right.  I’m just going with what I think I am supposed to be doing.

What is your current workout schedule? I practice every day. I play tennis three times a week, and I play basketball every day. Plus, we lift weights three times a week with a schedule from the US strength and conditioning coach. That is my typically schedule, unless we are getting close to a competition. Then, we practice for about four hours each day. Note: Mackenzie is also a full-time graduate student at University of Alabama! Roll Tide.

God Has A Plan spiritualinspiration.tumblr.comWhat books inspire you? I’m not a huge reader because of my studies I don’t have a lot of time. But, the Bible is probably the one book that I have read and that has inspired me the most.  Passage Jeremiah 29:11 really sticks with me: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

What’s your mantra that keeps you going during tough workouts or bad days? One day at a time. It is easy to get overwhelmed if you look too far ahead. You need to focus on one moment and do the best you can in that moment. Then, you do the best you can in the next moment.

How would you define ability? I would say everyone has ability. Ability is taking what you have been given and using it to the fullest potential. There are no restrictions on anyone’s ability because there is always a way to adapt. It is just a matter of finding a way to do it.

Mackenzie Intense henriettkoosz.atHow would you define 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 a 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.

What superpowers do you possess? This is the tough question. I don’t think I really have a superpower. I feel pretty average. I do have a real knack for picking winners of award shows, does that count? When in doubt, go with Meryl Streep. 

What advice do you have for other athletes? If you’re interested in doing a sport, just go out and try it. Then, you can see how you like it. If you like it, then you can take it to the next level. Sports are a great way to meet people. They also help you gain perspective and see what else is out there. They help you see what is possible. Sports are important for your self-confidence and finding out that you can do something independently. Any athletes who are just starting out should go for it. It is totally worth it!

Who would you like to thank? First, I want to thank my parents. When I was seven years old, my parents drove me two hours to a suburb of Detroit to try wheelchair basketball. I loved it. So, every week my parents would drive me two hours each way to practice for three years. I don’t think I would be here without them. I also want to thank my coaches from throughout the years. They have always pushed me to be better.

Learn more about Mackenzie’s story, and watch her win the gold in PBS Medal Quest.

Zack Bastian: Believer in Endless Abilities

Endless Abilities Crew Photo Credit: RI Monthly

Endless Abilities Crew Photo Credit: RI Monthly

Introducing Zack Bastian, an adaptive sports enthusiast, who stars in the documentary film, Endless Abilities. In the film, Zack introduces the audience to athletes across the country and demonstrates how sport can be a equalizing and unifying force for people of all abilities.

Name: Zack Bastian

Hometown: Kingstown, Rhode Island

Zack's ski jump Photo Credit: EndlessAbilities.org

Zack’s catching some air while skiing. Photo Credit: EndlessAbilities.org

What sports do you play? Well…I don’t play any sports, but I do sports. The first adaptive sport I got into was surfing. But recently, I have gotten into stand-up paddle boarding. Obviously, I sit-down.  So, it is sit-down paddle boarding, but it is the same SUP board. I got into it because the waves here in New England are just not that consistent for surfing, and there is so much coastline to explore. I also downhill ski. You can see that in the film.

Zack preparing for 10 mile road race in Rhode Island. Photo Credit: Rhode Race

Zack preparing for 10 mile road race in Rhode Island. Photo Credit: Rhode Race

This summer I got into pushing to get into shape. I haven’t technically been in a wheelchair race yet, but I did just do a 10 mile road race here in RI. I never imagined myself getting into push-rim racing. I was into way cooler sports like downhill skiing and stuff. Then, I got into running for exercise and now I am addicted to it. I love the release of endorphins and the feeling of speed.

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Zack shredding it. Photo Credit: EndlessAbilities.org

Zack’s Reflection on Surfing: Surfing is an expression, not just a sport. It is an expression of yourself. And when you get to the beach, your disability is really highlighted. You know, you don’t usually see lot of wheelchairs on the beach. Then, you have to have people help you swap out of your chair. Next, you drag yourself out until the water gets a little deeper. Once the depth of water covers the fin of the board and you can hop on, it all changes. All of sudden, you’re like “Bam!,” my disability is gone. You’re paddling out into the waves, and then shredding it. Now, everybody who has been watching you as a “handicap”person has their perspective shifted. They see you as a surfer now and are like “Whoa!” 

What superpowers do you possess? I don’t think I have superpowers. But let me think about it… I’ve got one. I think a lot of people have this one, but it does’t mean it isn’t a superpower. There are also a lot of people who don’t have this superpower. It’s resilience. I’ve noticed that in my life when things get really bad I have an ability to turn the situation into something positive, and that is my super power. When things get bad, I get inspired to work harder and be better.

The Crash Reel Photo Credit: Amazon.com

The Crash Reel Photo Credit: Amazon.com

What films inspire you? The Crash Reel is a film that totally inspired me. It is documentary about  Kevin Pearce, an extreme snowboarder, who had a crash that changed his life. The film documents his rehab process, and it directly reflected the process I went through when I slowly learned that I would never walk again. 

What songs would be on a film playlist? It all depends on what the film was about. The emotions always need to match the music. A good film has happiness, defeat, sadness, and triumph. I would pick the best song for each emotion.

What songs are on your workout play list? I have been listening to a lot of hip hop when I run. You know, it is fast moving. I really like this question… so are you ready?

1. Lykke Li’s “I know Places” and “No Rest for the Wicked.” These songs are in The Crash Reel.

Reckoning Song/ Song Day Photo Credit: Amazon.com

Reckoning Song/ Song Day Photo Credit: Amazon.com

2. Santigold’s “Radio.” She’s just awesome, and I’m really into her music right now.

3. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “10,000 Hours” 

4. “One Day (Reckoning Song)”* by the Mojos This one is awesome! Put a BIG star next to that one.

5.  “I Can’t Stop” by  Flux Pavalion It’s a dub step song. It’s like a snowboarding song.

6. “Intro” & “Outro” by M83

That’s my stuff, right there.

Henry Ford Quote

Henry Ford Quote

What’s your mantra that keeps you going during tough workouts or bad days? My mantra is to be the best that I can be. One of the things I tell myself a lot and is on my dad’s gravestone is: Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.  So, I try to realize when I am having negative thoughts and get them out of my head.

“Just do it.” I know it sounds cliche like the Nike saying, but really just go out there and do it. Don’t make excuses. You have to have positive thoughts. I’m not sure if this is a mantra, but it is definitely the way that I live. I focus on the present and the future. The present and the future are what keep you going.

How would you define ability? I would define ability as a state of mind. My dad had it right, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t– you’re right.” He was totally right. If you put it into your head that you can do something, then you can do it. Ability is in your mind and in your soul. And really, there are endless abilities!

Endless Abilities Poster Photo Credit: EndlessAbilties.org

Endless Abilities Poster Photo Credit: EndlessAbilties.org

What do you hope the audience will gain from your film? Inspiration. I know there are conflicting views on inspiration when associated with disabilities, but there is inspiration in the adaptive sports movement. As Judge Richard Bernstien recently said at a viewing of Endless Abilities in NYC, “Civil rights movements have always needed inspiration. You need inspiration and education.”

So, I hope the film does two things: First, it inspires someone in a hospital bed beginning the rehab process to keep going. Second, since it is viewed by more people without disabilities, I hope the film shifts how they view disabilities and that they are inspired by what they see. When you see people overcoming adversity, it is inspirational.

What advice do you have for others? I was asked to mentor this young guy because he recently got hurt in a dirt bike accident. I told him in one of our first meetings that this would be a give and take relationship because we both can learn from each other. But some of the things I like to share with him is to help him look at all the things he CAN do. You need to find things you love and you can do. For anyone facing adversity in life, you need to stop thinking “This is where was I,” but, “Where am I now? And, where am I headed?”

Jesse Billbauer Article Photo Credit: Ability Magazine

Jesse Billbauer Article Photo Credit: Ability Magazine

Who would you like to thank? Oh, my gosh…The list goes on and on and on… Really, the list goes on and on….Well, there are so many people who have contributed to who I am like my parents, family, friends from childhood, and others like Jesse Billauer, whose article inspired me. I don’t want to leave anyone out, but the ones I need to thank the most are my producers in the film, Tripp Clemens, Harvey Burrell, and Will Humphrey. When they saw that I had a story to tell, they helped me develop it. It was the biggest break or piece of luck that I have had in my life. Not only did it give me the opportunity to be  part of something so great in the film, but it created in me the desire to help and to be a part of something bigger.

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A running “zelfie” with a message. Photo Credit: Zack Bastian