By Maggie Redden, Communications Specialist, National Disability Institute
This is it. Years of training, sacrifices, pain, sweat and tears on the line. Was it worth it? Yes. As all athletes know, we repeatedly put ourselves on the starting line. My heart pounding and arms quivering from nerves, I take a deep breath. I’m surrounded by 90,000 people, but hear nothing. Ahead of me lies 200 meters of track that just happens to be half way around the World, on the biggest stage I’ve ever known. The gun goes off. Ten years of training comes down to a race that will last seconds.
Thus far in life, I have run many races. When I competed in the Beijing Paralympics, a dream of mine came true. But, what’s more important to me than getting to the starting line that day, was the journey of literal and figurative races that got me there, and what has happened since.
I am acutely aware that life could’ve been very different. Born in India, I contracted Polio as an infant which left me paralyzed from the waist down. I was placed in an orphanage and by a stroke of luck, I was adopted.
The race to become as independent as possible started early on. My mom enrolled me in a pre-school for kids with disabilities. The school helped my family navigate trips to doctors and hospitals for multiple surgeries. In school, I learned to walk with leg braces and a walker. I also got my first manual wheelchair.
In 1990, the same year the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, I started kindergarten in an inaccessible school where I was the only student with a physical disability. My mom and teachers knew that if I could conquer stairs using crutches instead of a walker, I would gain independence. My desire to keep up with my classmates kept me going even when the effort was exhausting. That early lesson in perseverance powered me to the Paralympics.
I was introduced to wheelchair sports in pre-school and they have been an integral part of my life since. In high school, I joined the able-bodied track team. While I practiced with the team, I couldn’t compete with the runners at local meets. Perseverance got me through the races where my only competition was myself. Luckily, I was also on a Paralympic Sports Club team from ages 5-20. It was there that I blossomed.
In college, I had to learn how to manage being a full-time student-athlete because I competed for Penn State University as a member of their Ability Athletics program. Sports have an empowering affect. Apart from leading to a healthy lifestyle, lessons learned from playing a sport can be applied to life. Athletics can teach goal setting, time management, sportsmanship and how to persevere when faced with challenges or defeat.
I didn’t come away with a medal that day in Beijing. In fact, I was disappointed with my performances there. After the Paralympics, there were a couple years that I felt lost in a mid-20s life crisis. Did I want to commit to more years of training? Was it time to pursue other interests? Was it time to focus on my career which had taken a back seat?
Going back to India had always been on my list of things to do, but it didn’t happen until 2012. During my year abroad, I lived at Shishur Sevay, a home for orphan girls (some with disabilities) in Kolkata, India. Coincidentally, the home was established by a woman whose daughter grew up with one of my fellow competitors on Team USA.
Living in India was challenging. In the U.S., I drive, work, socialize and cherish my independence. In India, as a woman, with a disability, who didn’t speak the language, I lost freedoms I took for granted. For a country that is largely third-world, accessibility doesn’t exist. Perseverance got me through. I experienced firsthand what life could’ve been like and I returned to the U.S. with an appreciation for the disability activists who had fought for equal rights and against discrimination. I also found direction and decided to focus my career on serving individuals with disabilities because the fight for equal access and opportunities is not over. I foresee many races in my future.
We all have “races” to run, whether they are financial, educational, for independence, employment related, purpose seeking or simply athletic. They can be short and attainable, or they can span a lifetime and seem impossible. I challenge you to persevere across the finish line.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maggie Redden is a Communications Specialist at National Disability Institute (NDI). Before joining NDI, Maggie worked as a Legal Assistant for an Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, a branch of Social Security, in New Jersey. She also spent time as a Transition Coordinator for Heightened Independence and Progress, a Center for Independent Living, and as an Outreach Coordinator for New Jersey Paralympic Sport Clubs. Maggie represented New Jersey in the 2014 Ms. Wheelchair America competition, finishing as the third runner-up. She has a Bachelors in Communications from Penn State University and a Masters in Public Administration from Saint Peter’s University.