As a mentor, he came into my life at the perfect time.
When I was fourteen years old, I joined a sports team for people with disabilities. It changed my life. Because I had always been mainstreamed and up to that point, had mostly done whatever my family did in terms of activity, I wasn’t around people with disabilities much. The exception was a few weeks at sleep away camp for kids with disabilities each summer.
When I joined that team, for the first time, I had exposure to people with disabilities who were older than me on a regular basis. One of the athletes I met was Scott. He was 26, has Muscular Dystrophy, was newly married and owned his own business as a graphic designer. Instantly I was intrigued.
As the months went by and I got to know Scott, I began to ask him questions and share some fears I had about having a disability. Could I hold a job? Date? Get married? Have kids? Have a nice social life? What is the best way to respond to people who are clearly uncomfortable around my disability? Scott heard it all. He listened, guided, and offered all kinds of support. We saw each other every Saturday at wheelchair soccer practice. We talked on the phone sometimes as well.
In one such conversation, he asked me an interesting question. “Hey kid,” (He hardly ever called me by my given name.) “If you didn’t have a disability, would anything in your life be different?”
I didn’t hesitate. “Yeah, I would be a dancer.”
He was not surprised, but he asked me to tell him why.
“Dancing is graceful,” I said with conviction. “Dancers use their bodies to create beauty. I can’t do that in my current circumstances. A wheelchair, crutches and leg braces are all awkward and bulky. They are functional, not beautiful. But there is more to it than that. Dancing is something that I can’t do, it feels out of reach because of my disability. Sometimes I would love it if I could just let go and dance.”
In terms of sports, my passion was track. Every day after school, I would work out with the head football coach. Over time I got stronger and my speed circling the track increased. Things got even better when, as the result of some fundraisers, I got a state of the art wheelchair to use when I was competing. My favorite event was the 400-meter dash, and after my junior year in high school, the time that was a personal best for me was only a few seconds slower than the world record at the time.
In August of that year, we traveled to Michigan State University to participate in the National Cerebral Palsy Games. They were a big deal. It was there that I was hoping to qualify for international competition; what would be the equivalent of the Paralympics today.
Shortly after we arrived at MSU, Scott and I went to see the track. I remember feeling like I might have been in a washing machine too long and had shrunk as we had traveled from Texas. The enormity of the track and the stadium caused nerves to play hop scotch in my belly.
A couple of days later it was time to see what I could do. And the nerves were so at home within me after showing up a few days before that they were probably eating popcorn and watching cable on race day. Thoughts of the race were secondary as questions swallowed my concentration. What if I didn’t do well? Would I be letting down everyone who supported me? Would the head football coach think he had wasted all his time with me? If I didn’t qualify for the international competition, what was I going to do? I couldn’t turn my thoughts off. I wanted to scream simply to release some tension.
Finally, it was announced over the loud speaker that the 400-meter event would be starting soon. Scott came over to talk to me for a minute before I made my way to the starting line.
“Hey Kid, I know you are nervous. Don’t think about anything but the race and getting across that finish line as fast as you possibly can. You have worked hard to get here. Now go do what lots of people don’t think you can. Go dance.”
For some reason, the words hit home. By the start of the race, I wasn’t nervous anymore. My best effort qualified me to represent the United States of America at the International Games for the Disabled.
I think about Scott often these days, and keep up with what he is doing. We also touch base occasionally. (Thanks, Facebook.)
And for more than 30 years, whenever nerves play hopscotch in my belly or completing a task seems like it is too far out of reach, I remember his words of advice.