Measuring Miracles by Leaps and Bounds

Measuring Miracles by Leaps and Bounds

From Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrating People Who Make a Difference

Measuring Miracles by Leaps and Bounds

It’s the constant and determined effort that breaks down all resistance and sweeps away all obstacles.

Claude M. Bristol

I am no stranger to being different and challenged. It took a while, but I finally got used to people asking, “So, how did you lose your arm?”

Losing my arm to cancer when I was only eleven was a hard way to learn what it means to be handicapped. Doctors discovered a tumor the size of an apple when I broke my left arm in three places. It cost me my arm and shoulder, and because I lost my shoulder, I can’t wear a prosthesis. Trying to join in sports was an exercise in frustration for me: I was always picked last, or not at all. So my first challenge was adjusting to life as the “one-armed” kid. When I got over the shock, I determined to be the best I could be at everything I tried. This cancer wouldn’t stop me!

I discovered vaulting at Cal-Poly when I was working on a degree in animal science. Vaulting is gymnastics on a moving horse, sort of like Cossack horsemen or circus performers. It is definitely a two-armed sport. The more I watched the Cal-Poly team, the more I knew I wanted to vault. Quite an ambition for a young man with one arm. The school said, “You can’t vault . . . you only have one arm.” Well, telling me “can’t” is like guaranteeing my success. As the first disabled competitive vaulter, I became a bronze medalist. I was even part of a special demonstration at the 1984 Olympics.

After college I got a job as a vaulting coach working with the handicapped in a therapeutic program. That’s where I met my wife, Virginia. Just when things were going well, the nonhandicapped program was discontinued, but I was not going to give up my dream of creating the first team of handicapped and nonhandicapped vaulters who would compete in mainstream competition. Virginia and I took the vaulters who wanted to continue in the program, and with more determination than money, we formed Valley View Vaulters. Virginia became the manager and longeur (the person who controls the horse by holding the lunge line, which is attached to the bridle of the horse as it moves in a circle), and I coached the vaulters of all ages and abilities.

We were so broke we couldn’t even afford one horse. We set up a practice barrel in Virginia’s backyard for our integrated team of seven (one-third handicapped and two-thirds nonhandicapped), and as we entered competitions, people who believed in what we were doing would lend us their horses.

We knew that our fledgling team would raise the bar for the handicapped, achieve success, and share in the joy of one another’s accomplishments. Since 1980 I’ve coached thousands of kids and young adults. In 1993 we began winning competitions, and in 2002 we captured the Trot Team National Championship, a remarkable accomplishment, considering our overall team remained one-third handicapped and all of our competitive teams included members with handicaps. Our team was winning time after time without any special considerations.

We have helped kids who have cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome, spinal bifida, schizophrenia, ADD, vision or hearing loss, acute arthritis, and more have a better quality of life. They believe and they achieve. When they look at me doing what I do with one arm, they figure, if I can do it, they can, too.

At the 1996 Nationals, the American Vaulting Association acknowledged our program’s amazing successes, and for the first time in their history, a demonstration class for disabled vaulters was included. Thirty-three-year-old Jeffrey, who only four years earlier had been confined to a wheelchair, performed in a special exhibition class for more severely handicapped vaulters. He was one of five participating Valley View Vaulters whose disabilities ranged from cerebral palsy to autism. Raising himself up from a chair in the arena, Jeffrey walked without help to our big white horse and mounted, assisted only by me giving him a leg up. His face glowed with achievement as he stood upright on the horse’s back and flawlessly executed a series of intricate compulsory exercises before facing backward and dismounting by swinging off the horse. He walked back to his chair unassisted. Thunderous applause from teary-eyed spectators filled the arena. There is no way to place a value on his accomplishment.

After Jeffrey’s performance, his father reminded us, “When Jeff started, he could barely get his legs apart. Remember, Rick? It took four men to lift him onto the horse. You not only helped him physically . . . you helped his socialization. Now he wants hugs from everyone. You and Virginia gave him that kind of freedom.”

As Virginia often says, some of our kids don’t do well in school. They are not in the top of their classes—for the most part, they are really struggling and don’t feel good about themselves. With vaulting they get in touch with life, go forward, and gain self-esteem.

Our profits can’t be tracked on a balance sheet, because we are always struggling to stay out of the red, but they are greater than most would ever hope for. Since raising enough money to fund the team is a constant struggle, we measure our profits in achievements of the students and the loving support network that has been formed by all of the vaulters and their families.

I don’t know who gets more out of the programs—those with disabilities or those without. The kids who don’t have physical or psychological problems learn what it means to care and be sensitive to those who do. But they don’t see the difference as a curiosity; it just means their friend and teammate needs a little more help or time. It gives them wonderful values.

When we watch determined youngsters with challenges successfully accomplish what should be impossible, those are our riches. No one could ever hope for more.

Rick Hawthorne
as told to Morgan St. James

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