Guest blog post by Chelsi Figley
My name is Chelsi and I am a member of the USNT for Paralympic Powerlifting. I’m 31-years-old and was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus. My lesion level begins at L-1 and I have never been able to walk without the assistance of hip-knee-ankle-foot orthoses (HKAFOs). I grew up in and still live in a very small town in Northeast Ohio. I did not have many connections to adaptive sports or other recreational activities adapted for people with disabilities, with the exception of a local spina bifida group that gathered occasionally for picnics, pizza parties and an annual bowl-a-thon. Basically, I grew up in an able-bodied world, mostly adapting myself to it rather than it adapting to me. It was hard to be ‘different’ in a small town. People didn’t really seem to know how to handle my diversity– maybe because there wasn’t much of it in such a tiny community. I was always loved and never had much of an issue with bullying; however, I didn’t have much access to activities that included me as a ‘normal’ kid.
As an adolescent, I began using a wheelchair, rather than walking with my braces, as it helped me keep up with everyone else and allowed me to be included in the mix. Plus, my peers loved pushing me around the playground and talking about building engines and other additions to my chair. My teen years then brought a pretty big denial phase (even spilling over into early adulthood), as I wanted very little to do with anything that would or potentially could label me as being someone ‘different.’
From the time I was very young, I would watch the Olympics (at the time not being aware of a Paralympics opportunity) wishing with everything in me that there would be a way some day that I would be able to be one of those Olympians. It wasn’t until I was 25 years old and discovered the bench press that I began to realize that I too could enjoy activities like any other ‘normal’ person– as long as I accepted any adaptations that may be needed. Once I found that I had a talent in the weight room, I looked up the sports that were included in the Paralympics (which I had been made aware of in my early 20s) and found powerlifting, which was a competition of the bench press– my specialty. I found a trainer who was willing to dedicate his time to my dream of being an athlete in Paralympic powerlifting, which really helped me discover my confidence and worth. Even knowing the many adaptations that he had to make in order to make me successful, he was willing to proceed. The way I saw it, if he was willing to make the adaptations, then I had to be willing to accept them.
(Photo Courtesy: Arbogast Photography)
Five years later, I have qualified for the USNT twice for the World Championship Games and once for the Para-Pan American Games, and am steadily working towards a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Team. This year, I am competing in Dubai, where I hope to set a new personal record that climbs me a little farther up the International Ranking ladder. I will also compete in several able-bodied competitions to continue getting as much exposure to competing as possible.
Slowly, I have begun accepting my differences and have gained more self-confidence in all areas of my life along the way. I have returned to college, pursuing my counseling degree with the goal of one day working with individuals who have situations similar to mine. I want to help people understand that what makes us different is really what makes us the same. Everyone is different, so being different really is ‘normal.’ The most important thing to remember when realizing and achieving goals of any kind, whether they be life-long dreams or simply finding contentment in life, is this: it’s okay to get frustrated. It isn’t supposed to be easy. Life isn’t easy for anyone. Keep going anyway. Keep trying. Keep adapting. Also, find humor in whatever the circumstance may be. Believe me, it helps to soften the blows. Keep laughing, even at yourself. And one final piece of advice from me would be: don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t or you aren’t good enough. Keep searching for that person (or those people) that will help you make it– even if it takes more than 25 years.
(Photo Courtesy: Ken Richardson)
If you would like to follow my journey towards the Paralympics or need a connection to get started on your own goals, feel free to check out my Facebook page.
To learn more about spina bifida please visit MyChildWithoutLimits.org.