‘Cause it makes me that much stronger, makes me work a little bit harder

I finally understand the anxiety behind releasing a second album or a movie sequel. Expectations soar and you’re left wondering how you’re going to compete with your initial success, not that my last blog post was “initial.” I posted 57 essays prior to that one game-changing post. The others were meaningless compared to the brutal honesty I shared a couple weeks ago, and since I wrote that, I don’t want to return to writing fluff. I enjoyed baring my soul, but I wonder how much soul is left to bare? How can I top it?

There’s my issue: I’m entirely too competitive for my own good. I always search for ways to improve. I can’t face that life isn’t a steady climb upwards. It’s a rollercoaster with enormous hills and valleys. I won’t always win. (Blasphemy!) I won’t always land the job. (Gasp!) Each essay won’t be better than the last. (Say it ain’t so!) That competitive nature stems from my very core, and for better or worse, it’s who I am.

My first taste of competition came in elementary school during a relay race. Caroline Yates, a year older and a foot taller, was the epitome of speed. At that very moment, all I wanted in the world was to beat her. Even if I lost to someone else, beating Caroline would mean I succeeded. My little legs pushed harder and faster until I crossed that finish line first. No one other than my mom and I probably remembers this surge to victory, but for me it was monumental. It was a freeze-framed, boundary-pushing moment. I faced an obstacle and surpassed it.

Adversity challenges us in ways we could never imagine. We all face it at one point in our lives, but for some it’s an ongoing struggle. How we react to those challenges defines us. Some people succumb; others persevere. I chose to approach adversity with a forceful, head-on crash as my own obstacles formed a rock solid barrier of strength around me. Since the moment I could comprehend my situation, I felt an insatiable need to prove myself to be more than just someone’s sideways glance. If I was going to turn heads, my facial abnormality would be a mere afterthought. I wanted to be recognized for my accomplishments and not my Treacher Collins Syndrome.

My parents raised me to understand my limitations: no swimming while wearing my hearing aid and no horseplay after a surgery. Other than that, I never heard the phrases you can’t, you won’t, or you’ll never. I could accomplish anything as long as I put forth the effort. With that upbringing, I gained wings allowing me to soar without fearing the height.

When you live life sans limitations, you never question how anything is possible. Instead, you take the steps to make things possible. You achieve more because you’re open to more. My door to possibilities, though unbeknownst at the time, opened the moment I enrolled in gymnastics. I formed an immediate bond with athletics unaware of the tremendous impact it would have on my life lasting to adulthood. The more I endured with operations, the more I focused on becoming a stronger, more powerful athlete.

My athleticism was one of the ways I obtained the respect I demanded. It’s one of the reasons I led a bully-free life as a child. I physically was more capable than my classmates and made sure they knew it. I always pushed myself to do the most pull-ups during the annual physical fitness tests, even surpassing the boys. I wouldn’t stop at the minimum requirement to earn the blue patch. I had to crush everyone else. Why? Simply because I could. By doing so I stated a point: respect me. My strength commanded attention. I was thought of as the girl to beat, not the girl with a weird face. I was the girl who did “ninjas” (back handsprings), not the girl who had surgeries. I was Kristin, not Treacher Collins.

Athletics gave me a chance to shine brightest and prove my greatness. It emphasized strength while nurturing the competitive spirit. It solidly flaunted my abilities to anyone watching. I began to crave the physicality of sports. It demanded attention by being visible and tangible, while art and intelligence focused more on quiet, personal goals. Sports always appeared more boisterous, and that in-your-face obnoxious attitude was exactly how I planned to be noticed. I needed something physically challenging to overshadow my physical flaws.

When I joined the competition team in gymnastics (starting for me at Level 4), I offered sub-par performances and won only two ninth place ribbons all season. My family didn’t realize that the summer prior to competition season should be spent practicing gymnastics, not in computer camp with the rest of my school friends. The following summer my will to succeed led me to spend every waking hour in the gym. I trained privately with my coaches to perfect my weakest skills and practiced on my own even when I didn’t have to. My muscles grew stronger and the skills became easier. I repeated Level 4 and effortlessly won most of my competitions thanks to the excessive training I forced upon my nine-year-old body. During competitions, parents from opposing teams were often overheard discussing the unfair advantage my team gained by holding me back for another year. It seemed I had people right where I wanted them, discussing my superior skills and not my syndrome.

During the final meet of Level 4, I achieved a victory that was a first in the state of Florida (or so I was told). I received a perfect score, a Perfect Ten. This meant I performed my floor routine flawlessly without a single flexed foot, bobble, or bent knee. It’s a near impossible feat to be perfect in anything, but I, a girl full of flaws, achieved perfection before anyone else. I tore down any lingering barriers between judgment and reality that day. My perfection solidified my abilities and steamrolled the naysayers. Gymnastics instilled in me a drive that I may not have otherwise known possible. It taught me to find an ally in my strength, fight for what I wanted, and prove that I have nothing holding me back. From that point forward, I may have been recognized for my face but I was remembered for my talent.

I have been out of the gymnastics world now for nearly 20 years, but I still find ways to prove my physical abilities. Currently, I’ve taken up an activity I never imagined I would even remotely enjoy- running. I’m the girl who quit track in high school because she hated the longer distance training runs required even by sprinters. I’m the girl who never wanted to sign up for a travel soccer team where running for endurance training was a daily occurrence. Now I somehow find myself dedicated to any running challenge that presents itself. Most recently, I completed my second consecutive Dopey Challenge, a 48.6 mile running adventure through Walt Disney World spanning four days (5K, 10K, Half Marathon, Full Marathon). I’ll complete my fourth Marathon in October running the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C. I run to prove to myself I can and I will. I don’t race to win (I am by no means fast enough). I run to push myself just a little further than last time. When I started, I didn’t think I would care about personal records, but I seem to enjoy setting new goals. As my competitiveness kicks into gear, I prove to no one but myself that I am able.

Why am I so persistent about proving myself? Because every-so-often there are moments that diminish my self-worth and force me to realize I have to show my abilities. I’m at a disadvantage: people aren’t quite sure what to make of my syndrome. It doesn’t affect my cognition or mobility, but Treacher Collins Syndrome flows to unchartered waters for most people. There’s always a need for me to push a little harder to break down preassembled walls of judgment. Yes, I can tumble (do backflips); I can think analytically; I can skate with Olympians; I can paint; I can bake; I can play soccer; I can ski; I can execute a perfectly timed jump for the camera; I can outrun a cheetah (well, maybe not but I am a fast sprinter); I can understand the words that are coming out of your mouth.

n eighth grade, a referee made me remove my hearing aid during a soccer game. If I wanted to play, I’d have to play with the world on mute. Did the girl with glasses play blind? No. I shouldn’t have been any different, but because a bone conductive hearing aid wasn’t common, I was subjected to ignorance. Playing without my ears may have thrown off my equilibrium, but it sure as hell didn’t diminish my speed on the field.

In high school, I volunteered for the Special Olympics. When I proceeded to check in, the associate assumed I was participating in the games, not volunteering to work them. Being judged by my appearance stung. During the gymnastics portion of the games, I spent my free time tumbling while everyone else watched in amazement at my talent.

It’s evident these days that society tends to embrace triumphant stories of athletes with handicaps. During the London 2012 Olympics, the world tuned in to watch Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee, run alongside able-bodied Olympic athletes. When the Seattle Seahawks advanced to the 2014 Super Bowl, the media focused on Derrick Coleman, a backup fullback for Seattle who lost his hearing at the age of three. Steve Holcomb, a gold medal winning Olympic bobsled driver, suffered from a vision debilitating keratoconus prior to having a non-invasive corneal procedure to correct his vision. He was almost forced to retire from the sport by a crippling fear of potentially injuring his teammates in a crash caused by his legal blindness. (Fun fact- I also have keratoconus and underwent a cornea transplant at the age of 23.) As a society, we emphasized the obstacles faced by these athletes as well as their will to overcome the odds. By spreading their stories, we created a desire to root for the underdogs.

Even though there have been some notable protagonists in sports, I still wish there were more of us flawed characters in the spotlight. Handicapped heroes should be athletes of all levels, not just professionals. They should be everyday people shattering limitations. I once submitted a commercial idea to a popular athletic brand featuring a gymnast with Treacher Collins Syndrome (I was drawing from experience obviously). Essentially the concept was this: imagine a blurred figure start to tumble. The motions would be shot close-up and in slow motion so you couldn’t see the features of the gymnasts, but you knew she was tumbling. When you see the feet stick the landing, the camera pans up to the girls face and it’s not what you would expect. It’s a girl with a syndrome that can perform just as well as anyone else. The idea emphasizes strength, individuality, and possibility. To all those girls who face their own uniqueness, this could inspire them. It could have inspired me long ago.

I still nurse the need to prove myself daily. It’s that fight, that determination which drives me. I shouldn’t have to do this. I shouldn’t have had to build a bubble of positivity around myself to banish the crippling thoughts of outsiders. No one should face judgmental limitations. Just because I don’t look the same as everyone else, doesn’t mean I’m not smart or creative or athletic. No one ever told me to my face that I couldn’t do something, but the implication lingered like the scent of old cigar smoke. Ignorance fueled my determination. I’m thankful for everyone who thought my Treacher Collins Syndrome limited me; their doubt only made me stronger. Even if no one ever doubted my abilities and I imagined it all, I flourished thinking they did.

The time has come for me to hang up my medals and fight the battle for someone else. I continue to place a constant emphasis on my body because I still want to showcase my strength and agility. It propelled me through my youth unscathed and I’m holding on to it through adulthood as long as possible. My craving for strength and competition made me the determined person I am today. I intend to maintain both, though my competition isn’t with the ignorant anymore; it’s for the younger generations of kids facing their own hurdles. It’s time to shift gears and prove to them that they can live a limitless life. No matter who you are, what adversity you need to overcome, or how many times you hear the words “you can’t,” where there’s a will, there’s a way. I promise you anything is possible.


Cause it makes me that much stronger, makes me work a little bit harder – “Fighter” by Christina Aguilera