No Limits- A Wheelchair Basketball Dream for Malat Wei

Many young people have sports dreams. It may be to run the 100-meter dash in the Paralympic Games or to win a wheelchair rugby championship. Few have dreams like Malat Wei, and even fewer work tirelessly for years to see their dreams come true. However, Malat is no ordinary dreamer or average athlete. As a result, he has achieved what some once thought impossible. He brought the game he loves, wheelchair basketball, to the people of the country that he loves, South Sudan.

Malat Wei during his first trip back to South Sudan. Photo Credit: Niki Clark

Malat, who was born in the war-torn country of South Sudan, lost the use of his lower limbs due to polio at the age of three. He lived for years with his family in refugee camps before coming to the United States where he was outfitted with his first wheelchair and later exposed to adaptive sports. Through wheelchair basketball, Malat found confidence and strength that has empowered him to graduate from high school and become a premier player of the game. The transformative powers of sport led Malat to believe that if he could return to his home country he could share all that he has learned to help other individuals with disabilities to redefine how they see themselves and shift the perspective of community members on the value of people with disabilities.

Malat and Jess enjoying the game that transformed their lives. Photo Credit: Niki Clark

Jess Markt, a former wheelchair basketball player and current Diversity, Inclusion, and Sports Advisor for the  International Committee Red Cross (ICRC), also has a similar belief in the power of adaptive sports, due to a life-changing spinal cord injury and the introduction to wheelchair basketball during his rehabilitation process. In his role at ICRC, Jess has started numerous adaptive sports programs in countries caught in conflict. As a result, Jess visited South Sudan in 2017 and introduced the sport of wheelchair basketball in Juba.

When Malat saw a video on social media of the work that Jess was doing in his home country, he reached out to him. Jess understood Malat’s desire to become involved in the project and immediately saw the value in bringing Malat to South Sudan. Hence, he started advocating for him to join on the next trip as an assistant coach.

Malat demonstrating wheelchair basketball skills to new players. Photo Credit: Niki Clark

In 2018, for the first time since leaving South Sudan as a young boy, Malat returned home. Now, strong, educated, and empowered, Malat shared his passion for the game, belief in the power of adaptive sports, and hope for improved conditions for all people with disabilities. The pair spent their days teaching drills, wheelchair techniques, and the rules of the game. They also worked off the court to foster inter-tribal relationships and shift perspectives about the potential of people with disabilities by leveraging what was occurring on the court.

South Sudan wheelchair basketball players united through sport. Photo Credit: Niki Clark

The play taking place was a fulfillment of their dreams and a testament to all that they have overcome. It is also the true embodiment of the vision that the founder of the Paralympic Games, Dr. Ludwig Gutmann, had on the field of the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1948.

Players celebrating their successes on and off the court. Photo Credit: Niki Clark

In conclusion, at a time when many dreams have been deferred and hope may be hiding, one only needs to speak with Malat and Jess for a short time to believe again that ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE. These two inspire one to dream big, dig deep, and to keep moving forward to achieve the Possible.

Be sure to check out the award-winning documentary No Limits: Wheelchair Basketball in South Sudan which features Malat and Jess on their incredible journey to change the world through the game of wheelchair basketball. 

Some Impressive Sports Story Stats

Through the ICRC, Jess has brought wheelchair basketball to 19 war-torn countries with plans to expand to a total of 28.

Jess and the ICRC have worked to provide over 1,000 wheelchairs constructed by Motivation, a UK based organization that builds wheelchairs specifically for users in developing countries.

In 2018, there was 1 female wheelchair basketball player in South Sudan. In 2019, there were 25 female players with plans to develop more programming across the country.

Nevertheless, she persisted…the first female wheelchair basketball player in the South Sudan program. Photo Credit: Niki Clark

Representation Matters

Being a professor of education for over a decade, I have read lots of children’s books. Over the past five years, I have focused my reading on children’s books representing people with disabilities, and you might be shocked at what I found or maybe not…

  1. You can find many picture books about disabilities, but few picture books where the main character has an exceptionality.
  2. You can find the sports stories of athletes who play traditional sports, but you cannot find picture books about athletes who play adaptive sports. 
  3. You can find lots of pirate picture books featuring amputees holding weapons or bottles, but you cannot find books about going back to school that include children with limb differences. 
Pirate Pete by Kim Kennedy

When I reflect on what I can and cannot find for young readers, I wonder what messages they are getting from the books that do and do not appear on our shelves. Are these the messages we intended?

  1. You can talk about disabilities, but you can’t talk with people who have exceptionalities.
  2. You can hear the sports stories of traditional athletes, but the triumph of athletes who play adaptive sports are not as valuable. 
  3. You can read about amputees as villains, but they shouldn’t be included in your classroom.

Fortunately, there is a growing representation of people with exceptionalities in the media. You can see a young boy in a wheelchair on a poster at Target. In my Athleta catalog, a young girl who is an amputee is running across the page. So now, I simply wonder when children’s literature will catch up and include everyone on the shelf. 

Oliver Garza Pena gets that representation matters. Photo Credit: Ollie’s World Facebook Page

Until then, I will blog, teach, and present the sports stories of athletes who redefine ability and believe in the possible because I know representation matters. Don’t believe me. After a group of third graders, heard my son, Ian, and I share the sports story of wheelchair rugby champion, Nick Springer, and they asked to write him letters.

Nick Springer, two-time wheelchair rugby Paralympian. Photo Credit: Christopher Griffith for Vanity Fair

Dear Nick,

“You showed me that anything is possible. You showed me that there are no limits to what I can do.” -Sierra

“I think you are brave and I know you are strong.” -Olivia

“Never let anyone tell you what you can’t do and what you can.” -Emerson

“Everyone loved how you persevered.” -Grace

“I think you are brave like a superhero. I like the way you do wheelchair rugby.” -Ahmed

“I bet you liked crashing, slamming, banging, and helping your team. I think it would be fun to play wheelchair rugby.” -Logan

“It felt good telling your story to the class. I was proud of you and Mom and me. It also felt good to talk about someone else who has a disability like me. The best part was doing it with Mom. Love, Ian”

I told you REPRESENTATION MATTERS.

Ian representing his story at Shriner’s Hospital. Photo Credit: Shriner’s Hospital

Shriners Hospitals for Children Making an Impact

When filling out the adoption paperwork for Ian to join our family, we had to identify resources in our community that could support our son’s upper limb difference. We knew it was a blessing that just 30 minutes away was Shriners Hospitals for Children. However, at that time we had no idea of the impact that the team at Shriners Hospital would make on our family and just how grateful we would be for this amazing resource in our own backyard. Here are three ways Shriners Hospital has improved our lives:

#1 Modeling Acceptance. Did you know representatives from Shriners Hospitals visit schools and teach about physical differences, equip children with vocabulary to discuss disabilities, and provide hands-on experiences with prosthetic devices, braces and more? I didn’t until the counselor at Ian’s school arranged for outreach visits to his school, and Ian came home from school with a “finger cast.” He then shared how Miss Lee and Miss Kristen from Shriners had visited his class with dolls, braces, and made molds of the children’s fingers to show them some of the services provided at the hospital.

A Thank You Note from Ian’s Classmate
Photo Credit: Thankful Mom

With their modeling and accepting language, Ian told me how he decided to stand up in front of his class and tell his friends about his upper limb difference. His classmates asked him questions like, “Does it hurt?” or “Will it grow back?” And with pride, he answered them, “No, it doesn’t hurt” and “Nope, it won’t grow back”. For a child once taught to hide his little hand, with the guidance of Kristen and Lee, he was able to educate others and share with confidence how he can do anything. He just does it differently.

#2 Making Play Accessible. Kids are meant to play that is how they learn and explore the world. But when a child has a physical difference, his/her ability to fully engage with his/her surroundings may be limited. For Ian, he takes on most two-handed tasks like cutting his food, zipping his coat, or even playing basketball by making modifications. It takes practice, but he usually figures it out and doesn’t look back. However, learning to ride a bike proved to be unusually challenging for him. After lots of falls, scraped elbows and knees, and plenty of band-aids, Ian decided to ask the doctors at Shriners for some help. During our annual visit to the upper limb difference clinic, he stretched out his arms and said to the doctor, “Look at my arms, they are not the same length. It makes me wobble, and fall off my bike. Can you help me?”

Ian’s Big and Little Hands
Photo Credit: Proud Lucky Fin Mom

The doctor held Ian’s outstretched arms, smiled back at him, and said, “You’re right. They are not the same. But, we can make you a bike hand and that will help you balance on your bike. Do you want a bike hand?”

“Yes!” exclaimed Ian. Then, the nurse simply walked us out of the examination room and down the hallway to Pediatric Orthotic and Prosthetic Services Department (POPs). There Brock (he really is as cool as his name) made a mold that day for Ian’s new bike hand. It wasn’t until a rainy and cold November day that Ian got to test out his new bike hand. Since the weather wasn’t cooperating, Ian got to ride smiling down the hallways of the hospital. It was absolutely thrilling to watch him maneuver confidently around the corners and even ride one-handed while giving the nurses and doctors high-fives.

Brock and Caitlin watch Ian test out his bike hand while riding through the hallways of the hospital. Photo Credit: Proud Bike Hand Mom

BIKING UPDATE: In August, after lots of practice Ian finally learned to ride his bike without training wheels. Learning to ride his bike was a redefining moment for Ian. He truly learned to believe that he could do anything!

Ian is all smiles after riding his bike to the beach with his siblings and without training wheels.
Photo Credit: Proud Bike Mom

#3 Valuing Our Story. This third gift of valuing our story I never expected, but it might be the most important service that Shriners has provided to our family. The staff listened our story. They understood our story. They encouraged us to share our story. In the end, they valued our experience and literally offered a helping hand when we needed it. Their encouragement let us know that anything is possible for Ian. Their compassion let us know that it is okay to ask and accept help with no conditions attached. So on this #GivingTuesday, please consider supporting this amazing organization with a donation. And remember, always believe in the possible.

Ian showing radio hosts, Zito and Kera, from Mix 93.1 his bike hand.
Photo Credit: Shriners Hospital Photographer

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…

wing sky flying fly airplane aircraft military vehicle airline aviation show flight blue speed aerial pilot power team performance precision navy fast airshow jets blue angels air show air force jet aircraft aerobatics fighter aircraft monoplane air travel atmosphere of earth general aviation

“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.