At 15 months old, I pulled myself up and took my first steps in my family’s suburban Seattle living room, walking stiff-legged across the carpeted floor. While most parents consider this a milestone of child development, for my parents this simple act was nothing short of miraculous.
You see, I was born without hands and feet and I have been proving the experts wrong ever since. First walking unassisted, and eventually doing the unimaginable–becoming a world-class sprinter, winner of four gold medals and nominated to the Olympic Hall of Fame Class of 2012.
My motto has always been, ‘If you can dream it, you can achieve it.’ I’ve never thought about what I could not do; I was always trying to figure out ways to do something that seemed impossible. Early on I learned a simple, but important, lesson that has continued to guide me.
In the face of adversity, you do whatever it takes to endure.
My parents, who devoted their lives to making sure they nurtured my independence, took sage advice from a pediatrician who told them, “Tony can do everything every other kid can do. Do not let anyone intimidate you into thinking otherwise.”
Just because I didn’t look like everyone else didn’t mean I wasn’t like everybody else–in every other way. From the moment I was born, my parents’ goals for me allowed me to pursue a normal life I never felt sorry for myself, or gave excuses. I was expected to help with chores just like the rest of the family and that helped me going forward. I was treated as an equal, as capable as all my siblings.
I think what people with disabilities want more than anything else is to be treated normally. Trying to protect someone from disappointment by telling them they shouldn’t do something only hurts them more in the end. When people told me, ‘You can’t do this,’ I said, ‘I’m going to show you.’
I look at my disability as a gift. I have to consider every move. Even opening a jar requires thought and consideration. Not only has this helped my focus as an athlete, it also requires that I pay attention to each moment of every day.
When I run, I’m free of judgments and inhibitions. I would love to offer that opportunity to other ParaOlympians and hope to someday provide an elite, state-of-the-art training facility to both established ParaOlympians and promising hopefuls. It’s a big order but I have always been a big dreamer.
I want to share my good fortune with others and let them know that just because you are missing a limb doesn’t mean you have to miss out on your dream!