Sam Kuhnert from NubAbility

I am so excited to introduce you to Sam Kuhnert, Founder of NubAbility Athletics Foundation, an organization where children with limb differences receive training in mainstream sports from coaches with limb differences.

Sam Kunhert playing baseball with NubAbility campers Photo Credit: NubAbility.org

Sam Kuhnert is an ambitious young man, who in his senior year of high school had a vision for NubAbility. As a result, he spent his senior year, researching and using social media to connect with and gather a group of role models for young athletes. A year later, in 2012 NubAbility hosted their first camp with 19 youth at Greensville University. Sams reflects on that moment and states, “I knew then that this is what I am supposed to do with my life.”

Nearly seven years later, NubAbility has served 650 young athletes in various sports camps and clinics. This past summer Sam hosted 175 campers from 43 states and 3 countries. His work is making an impact nationally for people with limb differences. When speaking about the camp, Sam made it clear, “This is not a support group. We are teaching kids how to get up and reach their fullest potential. We want them to reach further than they ever imagined, more than they could have dreamed.”

Sam and the NubAbility Coaches teach campers to persist and work hard to reach their goals in three important ways:

  1. NubAbility Coaches teach athletes to block out the doubters and to listen to their inner voice saying, “You can do it!”
  2. NubAbility Coaches teach campers to embrace failure. They know that when we fail, we learn.
  3. NubAblity Coaches teach athletes that they need to be willing to put in the time and effort to succeed.

What does Sam hope athletes with limb differences gain from participating in Nubability camps?

I want them to know that everybody was created perfectly and that they can handle anything. I want kids out of the stands and into the game. There are a lot of life lessons that can be learned through sport.

What are Sam’s dreams for his organization and its athletes?

My ultimate goal is to see NubAbility worldwide. I want to offer clinics across the globe because, in other countries, people born with limb differences or amputees are seen as cursed. They are cast off and kept out of the public. Sport can change the way people are seen.

LISTEN UP: What advice does Sam have for parents and coaches of athletes with limb differences?

Don’t ever let them use their limb difference as an excuse. It becomes addicting. Push them to keep going even during times of adversity. Never let them know when you doubt them. And remember, it’s okay to let them fail because they will fail in their lives. It’s how we grow and get better.

How does Sam define ability?

Ability is the opposite of disability. It is being able to…Every person has the ability to do anything. If they have the will, they can do it. You’ve got to have grit.

What’s grit according to Sam?

Grit is being able to push through when people tell you that it’s too hard or you can’t do something. Grit is when you keep climbing no matter how high or how many times you might slip and go back to the bottom. You keep going. You keep pushing. You keep driving. You will make it to the top.

Who inspires Sam?

Jim Abbott. At 2-3 years old, I would sit on my dad’s lap and watch videos of Jim pitching in the major league. I would see how he owned his difference and how he wasn’t afraid of anyone. I saw how he used his platform for good and he owned who he was. I wanted to be like him.

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

After speaking with Sam, I knew that I had just met someone who believes in the limitless potential of every individual and who is making a difference in this world for young people. Of course, I also loved that we both admire Jim Abbott for his ability to play baseball and use his platform for good.

Sam Kuhnert, Founder of NubAbility Photo Credit: NubAbility.org

If you are impressed with Sam and he has you motived to reach your greatest potential, please contact him. He is available for speaking events. Just check out Keynote for a Cause on the NubAbility website.

To Sam and all the Nubablitiy Coaches, thank you for all of your great work and believing in the Possible!  -Jen

Learning to Fly

“Mom, I have a question.”

This is how most conversations start with Ian. His questions range from “Mom, how did we get our last name?” to “Mom, do you know what superpower I want to have?” Most of the questions occur in our minivan as I race around after work driving kids to basketball practice, picking up a rotisserie chicken at the grocery store for dinner, and thinking about those work emails that I should return.

On this quieter Monday afternoon, I was headed to the library with Ian and Caitlin to drop off books that were due when Ian announced from the back, “Mom, I have a question.”

“Yes,” I responded.

“Do you think I can be a pilot in the military?”

I pause. I think about the military and their physical requirements to join. I think about how one learns to fly. I think about Ian’s limb difference. I also think that I am really tired, that I didn’t have my afternoon tea, and I really don’t know the answer to this question. So, I sigh and say…

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“Well, I don’t know. The military has special rules about becoming a pilot and I am not sure if they would let you.” I pause and sigh again. Then, I add the words that make my shoulders sag and my heart ache.

“I am not sure if they let people with limb differences learn to fly.”

Silence.

“I think you’re wrong, Mom,” Caitlin states breaking the silence as she looks at me with disgust. “I think anyone can learn to fly.”

“Maybe,” I reply feeling exhausted. Exhausted because this territory of raising children with exceptionalities never lets you retreat. Exhausted because fear seeps into every crevice of your life leaving you questioning your actions, worried about their future, and so wishing you had time for a comforting afternoon tea.

The discussion ends abruptly when I pull into a parking spot in front of the library. Distracted by the idea of picking out new books, Ian and Caitlin jump out of the van and run into the library. I walk slowly behind them wishing I had better answers for his questions.

7 books, 1 cup of tea, and 2 cookies later, back at home I hear a ding.  I ignore it and keep typing my response to a work email. Then Caitlin appears, standing over me at the end of the couch, she asks, “Did you see what I sent you?”

“No. I will in a minute.” Intrigued because Caitlin rarely sends messages from her iPad, I set my laptop down and look at my message. Here is what she sent:

See, Mom, Ian can learn to fly.

I have never loved Caitlin’s YouTube watching more. Jessica Cox, I have never loved being wrong more. Lastly, I have never been more proud of my kids and how they see the world! I hope they learn to fly and prove me wrong over and over again.

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When I took this photo, I thought I was capturing a moment of summertime joy. Now, I realize what they were trying to tell me. Ian was shouting, “Mom, Never doubt me!” Caitlin was growling, “Mom, I am more fierce than you ever imagined.” And, Nolan was sighing, “Mom, when will you ever learn? Trust us. We can do anything.”

How Long Did It Take?

Typically, when I engage in a conversation about the adoption of my youngest son, Ian, I am eventually asked, “How long did it take?” Since November is Adoption Awareness Month, I thought I would finally answer this question honestly. So here is my raw, unfiltered answer:

It took a lifetime to adopt Ian.

It took a lifetime because…

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It took falling in love with a man who embraced the idea of creating a family in whatever ways we were blessed.

It took having two challenging pregnancies filled with moments that terrified me. 

It took two premature deliveries, a stay in the intensive care nursery, and an ambulance ride with a newborn.

It took dreaming of having a third child.

 

It took being told we weren’t ready to adopt a sweet little girl from Korea.

It took tears and heartbreak as I recycled the paperwork confirming our failure.

It took a move to a new town.

 

It took a prayer in the quiet of the morning.

 

It took the courage to open my heart and an email.

It took a long Sunday walk with my husband.

It took talking with our son and daughter about a little boy with a limb difference across the world in need of a family.

It took my daughter saying, “We need to be his family. We know he can do anything.”

 

It took a nerve-wracking phone call to the adoption agency.

It took sharing this very personal dream with close friends to get our initial three letters of reference.

 

It took letters from our police department, our employers, and our doctors just to start.

It took ensuring every document was properly notarized.

It took trusting the UPS service representative with our life and dream in an envelope.

It took waiting and waiting.

 

It took getting a US seal on every document.

It took more waiting.

 

It took a code from the US consulate.

It took a visa from China.

It took a 16-hour flight over the top of the world.

It took sleepless nights.

 

It took courage and faith in the power of love.

 

It took a door to open and a little boy to walk through it.

It took the tears of the nannies who loved him for the first seven years of his life.

It took the incredible love of his birth mother.

 

So how long did it take? It took a lifetime. It also took the most intense love I have ever felt.

However, if you ask, I will simply smile and say, “It took some time…about a year.”

But please know, adoption is the journey of a lifetime.

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Riding the Waves with AmpSurf

We heard about AmpSurf from a neighbor the summer before Ian joined our family. When she told me about their offerings, I couldn’t help but think that it was a little bit of fate. You see, AmpSurf is a non-profit organization that offers free adaptive surfing clinics to amputees on both the east and west coasts of the US, and they host one in Maine where we love to spend the summer months.

During a snowy January day, I registered for the August clinic hoping he would come to love the cold waters of Maine. Eight months later, after learning to swim and armed with a cozy black wetsuit, Ian was eager to try out a sport that his big sister loves.

The morning started with a warm welcome and an announcement that the best surfer on the beach is the one with the biggest smile. Caitlin leaned over to me and whispered, “I think that will be Ian.” The announcements were then followed by some dry land instruction on a wobble board and safety tips.  Then, in heats, each surfer clad in a brightly colored AmpSurf shirt hit the waves with their team. A team consisted of one surf instructor and four water volunteers who guided participants on their ride into the beach.

Ian was in the green heat and his instructor was Steve. He told us he was determined to stand up, and on his first wave, he DID. In fact, on every wave, he popped up and got into his best surfing stance. He did have one big wipe out, but a volunteer was right there and scooped him out of the water quickly. Then, in full Ian fashion, he stood up proudly and with a huge smile on his faced waved to us.

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Ian catching his first wave with AmpSurf with the help of Steve and his team of volunteers. Photo Credit: Proud Mom

As Caitlin, Nolan, and I watched Ian surf from the shoreline, we jumped, shouted, and cheered for him. There were even a few proud Momma tears. I just couldn’t believe how far my little boy had come! One volunteer working with Ian ran up and said to us, “I am not sure who had more joy on their face, Ian or all of you. This is just so beautiful!”

And it was beautiful, all of it. Even Ian agreed. On the car ride home, when I asked him what he thought of the AmpSurf clinic, he said, “Mom, it was beautiful.”

Surprised by his response, I asked, “Why? What made it beautiful?”

“It was so beautiful to see all of those people surfing. Some had one leg. Some were missing two legs, but everyone got to surf. Everyone got to have fun.”

Thank you AmpSurf for providing Ian, our family, and all of the participants with an incredible morning! We are already looking forward to next year!

If you are interested in learning more about AmpSurf, donating, or volunteering, please contact them at surf@ampsurf.org.

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Ian waiting for his turn with Caitlin and Nolan as the blue heat heads out into the waves. Photo Credit: Mom

 

The Power of Parks & Recreation

 

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Today was a remarkable day, and not just because the temperature in New England got into the 70’s during the month of February. It was an amazing day because Erin in our town Park and Recreation Department believed in the possible and the power of sports. And this mom is so grateful for having her on my team.

This story actually started a few weeks ago when I was trying to register the kids for spring sports. I kept questioning Ian and Caitlin what sports they wanted to play in the spring. It was a challenging conversation because I not only had to express what spring was like in New England to Ian, but I had to explain each sport to him and nothing seemed to interest him. Caitlin was engaged in the conversation, yet distracted. In the end, both kids accepted the opportunity to try track and field, but no one left the table with great enthusiasm.

I revisited the conversation the next day only to learn that Caitlin really wanted to play baseball, but she didn’t think it was an option because she was a girl. I explained that she could play any sport she desired. She then eagerly hung over my shoulder as I went to register her to play. Unfortunately, the online registration wouldn’t accept her information, and I had to disappointedly email our Park and Recreation Department about my difficulty in registering my daughter to play baseball. However, I got a prompt and apologetic response from Erin explaining that the form had been set to accept only one gender- male. However, she had reset it and that I should go ahead and register Caitlin. Caitlin beamed with excitement when I showed her the confirmation email.

So on this first day to get out and throw a ball, Caitlin and I played catch. She worked on her form and proudly grinned each time the ball solidly landed in her mitt. In fact, she even said, “Mom, I don’t plan to play as good as the boys. I plan to play better.”

While we tossed the ball back and forth, Ian sat watching unusually quiet. When we invited him to play, he replied, “I can’t. I only have one hand.”

“Of course, you can,” Caitlin quickly responded. I immediately thought of Jim Abbott. Doing the best I could, I showed him how he could tuck the glove under his arm while throwing the ball and then quickly switch the glove on to the same hand to catch the ball. He gave it a try with little success, but Caitlin wouldn’t let it end there. She coached him in throwing the ball properly, swinging the bat, and even running the bases. It was serious spring training here at the Stratton household.

After lunch, Ian begged me to register him to play on a baseball team like Caitlin. I promptly called Park and Recreation to sign him up. Erin answered and explained that it was late, but there were still a few slots open. I mentioned that Ian had joined our family in the fall and all of this was new to him making it difficult for him to decide on playing a spring sport. Her genuine excitement for Ian to engage in this new experience encouraged me to mention that he also had an upper limb difference. Expecting a pause, an awkward silence, I waited for her response…but she didn’t miss a beat. Instead, she responded that she would make sure he would be on a team with a returning coach who was more familiar with coaching young players. Then she asked if any of Ian’s friends were playing baseball. She wanted him to have some friends on the team to encourage him.  I then confessed that he thought he couldn’t play because he only had one hand. Worried she might doubt his ability, I quickly said, “I told him he could do anything.” This time she did pause and responded, “You’re a good mom.”

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I will admit I needed to hear that. Being a mom is hard work. It is scary work, always second-guessing yourself. I am so grateful for her kind words today. I am so grateful for her changing the gender setting on the website and enabling me to register Cait to play baseball. I am grateful for her not asking about Ian’s English acquisition or his limb difference, but about his friends on the team. Today, Erin believed in me as a mom. She believed in Ian as a ballplayer, and she absolutely understood the power of sports for this family. Erin, thank you for making this a remarkable day!

 

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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

 

 

 

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.

The Tale of Winter & Hope: An Interview with David Yates

Winter and Hope Photo Credit: Dolphin Tale 2

Winter and Hope Photo Credit: Dolphin Tale 2

Have you heard of Winter? She is the amazing dolphin who got caught in a fishing net and lost her tail, but not her spirit. She now swims with the help of a prosthetic tail at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Her best friend is Hope. Like Winter, Hope was found stranded at two months old on the eastern coast of Florida and brought to Clearwater Marine Aquarium to get better. We love their inspiring stories and their movies, Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2. We were super excited when we had the chance to visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to see them and meet with the CEO, David Yates. Here is our awesome interview:

Nolan, Caitlin and David Yates in his original CMA office and set for both movies. Photo Credit: Jen Stratton

Nolan, Caitlin and David Yates in his original CMA office and set for both movies. Photo Credit: Jen Stratton

David Yates: What brought you here today?

Nolan: Our mom has a blog, and she interviews Paralympians. We do the interviews for kids that will be future Paralympians. We think Winter is like a Paralympian because she swims fast with her prosthetic tail.

David: You’re right. I used to be the CEO of the Iron Man organization and worked with a lot of challenged athletes. I also helped to start the Challenged Athlete Foundation, and now I work with a challenged dolphin. So how did you get involved with this as a family?

Nick Springer, two-time Paralympian in wheelchair rugby, and Caitlin's hero. Photo Credit: XXX

Nick Springer, two-time Paralympian in wheelchair rugby, and Caitlin’s hero. Photo Credit: Loren Worthington

Caitlin: Our cousin, Nick Springer, is a Paralympian. He plays wheelchair rugby. At 14 he got sick and he became a quad-amputee. Now, he can even can use chop sticks.

Nolan: Yeah. And, he won a gold in Beijing.

David: That is an inspiring story. It is kind of like a story we have about a little dolphin around here. So how do you want to start?

Caitlin sits up tall with her prepared questions and asks the first question.

Caitlin: How long have you been working with Winter and have you worked with Hope?

David: I have been here for almost 10 years, and Winter arrived almost when I did-just within a couple of weeks. We raised our kids coming to the aquarium here. Now, they are grown. But back in the 90’s, we came here quite a lot and got to know the aquarium really well. Then, about 10-12 years ago the aquarium got in a bit of trouble, and they were running out of money. So I was asked to help it get better again. Because I knew the aquarium so well, I thought it would be neat to get involved. I have been working with Winter now for about ten years. And for Hope, I have amazing story about her coming here. Do you want to hear a crazy story?

Caitlin and Nolan: Yes!

David: You watched Dolphin Tale, right? Well, on Saturday December 11, 2010, we had finally wrapped up filming the movie after four years. It was finally done on that day. At 4 o’clock, I went home to change clothes because we were having a going away party for all of the cast and crew. It was going to be at the restaurant down the street. At 5 o’clock, we finally wrap up everything with the movie and we’re cheering.

Winter has Hope. Photo Credit: Dolphin Tale 2

Winter has Hope. Photo Credit: Dolphin Tale 2

Then, 10 minutes later I get a phone call from my dolphin rescue team that there is a baby dolphin on the eastern side of Florida stranded. If it survives, they want to bring it to Clearwater Marine Aquarium for rehabilitation. So within a couple of hours of finishing the filming of Dolphin Tale, Hope arrives during our party. It was a very providential act. So all of the cast that played us in the movie actually got to watch us bring Hope in and see what we do in real life. Hope arrived here 5 years and 1 day after Winter arrived. So the short answer to your question is that I have been with Winter for 10 years and Hope for 5 years now.

Caitlin: Have you ever worked with them together?

David: Yes, here is what happens with Winter and Hope. They are like sisters. They spend lots of time together, but sometimes they split up and have their own rooms. You know how it is sometimes you want to be together, and sometimes you want to be by yourself. When we work with them, you will see sometimes they will be together and sometimes they will be separated depending on the time of the day. They are good friends and they love each other. Hope is like the little sister who is always asking “Can we play?” Winter is 10, and like “Well, maybe later.”

Caitlin: Nolan is 10, and he is like that.

Nolan: Does Winter have different types of tails?

David: She has one tail at a time, but we have made many tails over the years. Here is her current tail, and we make a new tail about every four to five months. Can you guess why we make a tail every four to five months?

Caitlin: Because she gets bigger.

David: Right. Can you guess the other reason?

Nolan: Because they wear out.

Diagram of Winter's prosthetic gel and tail made by Hangar Clinics. Photo Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Diagram of Winter’s prosthetic gel and tail made by Hanger Clinics. Photo Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium

David: Almost. We are always trying to make it better. See her flukes, these are made in Japan by a separate group. It has to have the right buoyancy and the right kind of rubber. The rest is made by Hanger Clinics who make artificial arms and legs for people. Then, they put it all together. Now, here is Winter’s Gel. I have a neat story about Winter’s Gel. Dolphins have very sensitive skin, and anytime you wear an artificial limb you need a liner because it can cause chaffing.

Caitlin: Yeah, we know because our friend, Rio.

Nolan, Rio and Caitlin showing off Rio's legs. Photo Credit: Juliette Woolf

Nolan, Rio and Caitlin showing off Rio’s legs. Photo Credit: Juliette Woolf

David: Wait, you know Rio! He came and sat right here, too. Well since you know Rio and about liners, we had to create one for Winter. At first, we would wrap her tail to get her gradually used to it. If we just took the tail and put it on her and said, “Okay, Winter you have to wear this tail,” that would scare her. You have to do that gradually, one step at a time. We eventually developed Winter’s Gel. Now, there are thousands of people including kids using Winter’s Gel to solve their pain when wearing prosthetics.

Caitlin: Is it hard to get her tail on and off?

David: No, it’s very easy. We had to make sure it was a positive experience for her from the beginning. We have developed a very trusting relationship with Winter, and she trusts us now to take it on and off. It just takes two to three minutes to get on or off.

David shows Nolan and Caitlin all of the steps for getting the prosthetic tail on Winter. He explains that there are no pins or anything that would cause harm to her holding the tail on her body, just one velcro strap and suction. 

Kevin Carroll from Hanger Clinic fitting Winter's tail. Photo Credit: nwf.org

Kevin Carroll from Hanger Clinic fitting Winter’s tail. Photo Credit: nwf.org

David: The tail needs to be the right flexibility and the right buoyancy. If it is too heavy, she sinks. If it is too light, she can’t swim with it. It also needs to be the right flexibility to help her swim naturally. The whole idea of the tail is really to give her physical therapy for her back. She can’t wear it all day because it would hurt. So she wears it on and off all day giving her a chance to swim in a more natural way and protect her back from getting any worse.

Nolan & Caitlin examining Winter's newest tail. Photo Credit: Jen Stratton

Nolan & Caitlin examining Winter’s newest tail. Photo Credit: Jen Stratton

Caitlin: How does it feel? How much does it weigh?

David: Well, why don’t you hold it and feel it. It is about 12 to 15 pounds. It is actually lighter than if her actual tail was there.

Nolan: Yeah, it would have bones.

David: That’s right. It would be heavier because of the bones and muscle mass.

Nolan: What kind of training does Winter do and how long?

David: Well, we don’t call it “training” as much. We call it “enrichment and husbandry.” Those are big words, so I’ll start by explaining “enrichment.” The only dolphins we have here are ones who have been rescued and can’t be released back into the wild. Dolphins are very intelligent animals, and if they aren’t taken care of the right way, they can get sick and eventually die.

Trainer swimming with Winter Photo Credit: DailyHerald.com

Trainer swimming with Winter Photo Credit: DailyHerald.com

So here you will see us doing enrichment like “Face-toFace” time with dolphins. You will see toys in the water. It may seem cute, but they are out there for a reason. We give them lots of variety in activities throughout the day because it’s not good if they get bored or “satiated.” Our job is to always make sure we are doing new things with them throughout the day. You may see them jumping, but we don’t do activities for entertainment. They are to keep them mentally healthy.

Nolan: What techniques do you use?

Abby Stone working with Winter. Photo Credit: TampayBay.com

Abby Stone working with Winter. Photo Credit: TampayBay.com

David: We use “positive reinforcement.” If we want the dolphins to do something that would be good for them, we sometimes use a target stick to teach them. Once the dolphins have done the new action right, we give them positive reinforcement with food. Sometimes, we also use a bridge. It is a whistle that you sometimes can’t hear, but the dolphins can. We also use the whistle to tell them they did the right thing. It is a process and it takes time. It could take a number of months. A trainer may work with a dolphin for an hour or so, and then give her some rest or play time. The whole day is very scheduled. It may look informal from the outside, but it is very well planned- 24 hours a day.

Nolan: How do they sleep?

David: The best way to describe it is to think about your dad falling asleep in front of the T.V. Dolphins are mammals so they need to breathe even when they are sleeping. They float at the top of the water and shut off half of their brain. They are not unconscious, but are resting.

Nolan: What kind of diet is Winter on?

Nolan and Caitlin examining the sting rays. Photo Credit: Jen Stratton

Nolan and Caitlin examining the sting rays. Photo Credit: Jen Stratton

David: They are on a fish diet. There are three types of fish that they eat. Everything they eat is very  carefully managed by our veterinary team. They manage how much they eat, what they eat, when they eat, and how many calories. Typically, the dolphins eat between 13-18 pounds of fish a day depending on their size. Winter eats about 13-14 and Nicholas, our bigger dolphin, eats about 18 pounds of fish a day. Do you know how the dolphins get their water to stay hydrated?

Caitlin: From the fish they eat.

David: That’s right. Even though they live in water, they don’t drink it. Very good.

Nolan: When did you start letting people with exceptionalities visit Winter?

David: Winter came here in December 2005. When you have an animal who is being cared for and is rehabilitating, you don’t show the animal until it is well enough. So it wasn’t until June 2006, when Winter first appeared to the public.

Young boy meets Winter. Photo Credit: TampaBay.com

Young boy meets Winter. Photo Credit: TampaBay.com

But for special visits, that happened after I shared Winter’s story with media and it went all around the world. This was long before the movie, Dolphin Tale. People love a good news story, and this was special because it was about a dolphin that refused to give up. Then, we got all these letters from kids, wounded soldiers, and others who connected with Winter’s story about overcoming a challenge. They saw Winter and thought, “If this little dolphin can lose her tail and still live a dolphin life, then I can handle my problem.” We started getting emails and phone calls asking to visit Winter. Once the Dolphin Tale movie came out, in the first weekend we got over 10,000 emails. Now, we’ve gotten over 100,000 emails. And most of those emails are from moms and dads explaining how Winter has inspired their child who might be going through chemotherapy, has a cleft palate, has a limb difference, has autism, or some other special need that has connected them to Winter’s story. I bet if we walked out the door of this office right now, we could find many families here for that reason. Once we realized how much Winter was inspiring people, in 2007 we started bringing in kids with special needs and wounded soldiers to meet her.

Nolan and Caitlin holding Winter's newest tail. Photo Credit: Jen Stratton

Nolan and Caitlin holding Winter’s newest tail. Photo Credit: Jen Stratton

Thank you Clearwater Marine Aquarium and David Yates for your time. Thank you Winter and Hope for inspiring all of us to believe in the possible. Go Team Possible!

Paul Leimkuehler: Purple Heart Recipient and Adaptive Skiing Pioneer

Paul Leimkuehler Family Photos & Purple Heart Photo Credit: FreshTracksFilm.com

Paul Leimkuehler Family Photos & Purple Heart Photo Credit: FreshTracksFilm.com

In honor of Veterans Day, I wanted to share the incredible sports story of Paul Leimkuehler. Paul was a talented athlete and engaged in many sports including speed-skating, skiing and cycling. In 1936, he had earned a spot at the Olympic trials in cycling and in 1938 was named the Ohio State Champion. However, World War II was raging, and he was soon drafted into the U.S. Army where he served as a Lieutenant in the 84th Division. With great bravery Paul fought at the Battle of the Bulge, which is known as “the single biggest and bloodiest battle American soldiers have ever fought — in which nearly 80,000 were killed, maimed or captured in an infernal test of courage and endurance.”

Paul (on right) and his brother, Roy. Photo Credit: FreshTracksFilm.com

Paul (on right) and his brother, Roy. Photo Credit: FreshTracksFilm.com

During the battle, Paul was seriously injured in the left leg by shrapnel from a grenade. This injury resulted in his left leg being amputated above the knee. Paul received a Purple Heart for his bravery and returned home to recover at the McGuire General Hospital in Virginia.

However, Paul did not let his injury stop him from making significant contributions to his country. Using his mechanical engineering skills, he convinced the staff at the hospital to let him help improve the designs of the prosthetics and braces being used by patients. Once he was healthy enough to be released, Paul followed his new passion and studied at University of California, New York University and Northwestern University to eventually become certified in the science of prosthetics.

Paul skiing with outriggers and making three fresh tracks. Photo Credit: FreshTracksFilm.com

Paul skiing with outriggers and making three fresh tracks. Photo Credit: FreshTracksFilm.com

Always an avid athlete, Paul eventually found himself sitting awkwardly in the ski lodge watching his friends on the slopes when an Austrian ski instructor told him about a film, Miracles on Skis, featuring European amputees skiing. Inspired to try it himself, Paul built outriggers with sawed off crutches and shortened children’s skis attached to the base. Soon, Paul was out on the slopes and co-founding adaptive skiing programs such as Three Tracks of Ohio, the oldest adaptive ski program in the United States.

As you can see, Paul Leimkuehler made many contributions to our country through his service in the Army, and then through pioneering adaptive skiing programs in the United States. Paul reminds all of us to always find potential in our situation, to find the grit to pursue those opportunities and to always believe in the possible.

To learn more about Paul Leimkuehler visit Fresh Tracks Film and watch a sneak peek of the Fresh Tracks documentary highlighting his life.

Sources:

Fresh Tracks Film.com

PBS Battle of the Bulge Documentary

5 Lessons My Students (K-Ph.D.) Taught Me About Teaching and Life

Dear Students,

As I step out of the classroom, I would like to thank all of you for teaching me so many important lessons. Although you taught me many more than just five lessons, these are the lessons that have had the greatest impact in my teaching and my life.

1. LISTEN WITH YOUR EARS, EYES and HEART.Listen

It is hard to listen. It took me lots of practice, but you were patient. Fortunately, you taught me to listen first with my ears. Then, I could hear your words. Next, you taught me to listen with my eyes, so I could see the relationship between your words and your actions. Finally, when I was ready, you taught me how to listen with my heart, so I could feel your words. And when I learned to listen with my ears, eyes and heart, I then truly understood you.

2. REFLECT CRITICALLY ON MY ACTIONS AND MY WORDS.

Looking critically in the mirror is not always fun, but it is necessary when developing your teaching. As I reflected on my craft, I began to realize that it was in the small details of day that I needed to change. First, I learned to greet each of you and let you know that your learning mattered. This simple routine built a foundation for our relationship and said to you, “I care about you and want you to be successful.” Then, I learned that my language needed to be explicit and concise. So, I stopped saying, “Please take your seat” and starting saying, “It’s time to sit and get ready to learn.” Through conscious efforts, my language slowly became more inclusive and less exclusive. I stopped saying, “parents” and instead referred to “caregivers.” It was a simple shift. However, it gave recognition to the multiple family members and friends were involved in supporting your education. “Homework” became “out of school assignments” because I understood that some of you completed your work at centers or in libraries, not home. It was in the details of simple actions and my language that my teaching evolved, and I know you appreciated my efforts.

3. MISTAKES ARE LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES.

I don’t like to make mistakes, but I do. I have made plenty and learned from most of them. Fortunately, you were always so kind and forgiving when I made big mistakes in front of the class. You also taught me that laughing at myself when I faltered was a good idea. What elsFailuree do you do when you rip your pants during field day and have to hold them together with duct tape and binder clips? Yes, teaching, learning and living life are all risky business; it is important to have a sense of humor.

4. TEACH FROM AND WITH MY HEART.

This lesson still terrifies me. Teaching from and with your heart makes you vulnerable. I don’t like tFiber-and-hearto feel vulnerable; it’s scary. However, when you teach from and with your heart, the connections you make with students are steadfast and comforting like a warm quilt. What does it look like to teach from the heart? It means you read aloud Patricia Polacco’s Thank you, Mr. Falker with tears streaming down your face because you feel so deeply the pain of Trisha’s struggle to read. It means you eat lunch with your students and honestly discuss what superpowers you would like to have in the future. It means you search and find ways to give all students a voice, even if they never speak. When you teach from and with your heart, you stand beside your students letting them lean on you, you sit with your students letting them whisper their fears in your ears, and you hold them tight in your arms when the world seems too much to bear.

5. CHALLENGE MYSELF.

Okay, I love this lesson! Every day in your own learning, you would model for me the benefits of taking risks. As role models, you forced me to step outside of my comfort zone. I started in safe places like learning and integrating new technologies into my teaching. But I grew and so did the challenges. I started to look beyond the possible and started to challenge what seemed impossible. With your encouragement, I started to do more and become more. This lesson created my desire to write books for children that celebrate all abilities. When I shared my decision and thoughts about writing with you, you didn’t respond with looks of doubts or questions. Instead, you cheered me on and said, “I am so happy. Now, the world will be your classroom.”Globe w Hands

Thank you for teaching me these important life lessons. Each one of you has been a part of this journey, and I am deeply grateful for all the lessons we have learned together. Since the only gift I can give you now is the written word, I will share a poem by Shel Silverstein that I memorized in fifth grade. I’ve been carrying it around in my heart for years. I still repeat it to myself in moments of doubt. Here it is…

Listen to the Mustn'ts

So listen and remember, “Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.” I wish you all the best life has to offer!

Believe in the possible,

Jen

(A.K.A: Ms. Leary, Ms. Stratton, Professor Stratton & Dr. J)