Confessions of a Cheating Disabled Athlete
I never thought it would be possible for me to feel athletic, but soon I realized I loved to win.
Illustration by Eleanor Doughty
I have 15 gold medals for swimming. I used to think this was because I am a good swimmer. Now I think it might be because I was competing against people with no arms or legs.
I was born missing my left hand just below the elbow. The medical term for this condition is that I am a "congenital amputee," but everyone usually only hears the "genital" part and gets confused and thinks I have no vagina. So let's make this simple and just say that I have one hand.
I was never that interested in sports, not because of my arm, but because I just didn't like them. I was more interested in reading, but most of my classmates were heavily into sports. I felt like a loser in that sense. I did, however, enjoy swimming, which is why my mom wanted me to try to get more involved in it. We didn't have a pool, so there weren't many places that I could swim. Until I found out about the Empire State Games for the Physically Challenged through an amputee support group I was a part of.
The Empire State Games for the Physically Challenged was a three-day, Olympics-esque event on Long Island for disabled children to participate in various physical activities. I didn't have to try out. I just showed up, on a warm day in June, to a large open field. The DJ was playing "We Like to Party."
I signed in and was greeted by many kids around my age with varying disabilities. We had a barbecue, were given the choice between a burger or hotdog plus a bag of chips, and were told about the events we could sign up for. I signed up for just about every event I could—swimming, running, shot put, you name it. Like I said, I actually really hated sports, but my mom encouraged me to try everything. When we were given T-shirts and told how amazing we were, I thought I could end up having a good time.
"Watch out for this girl! I can tell she's a toughie," one of the able-bodied volunteers said to me as I balanced my plate on my stump.
Me? A toughie?
"Can't wait to see what you've got!"
I was starting to get into it.
In some ways, we all wear our trauma or insecurity on our sleeves, but this can be especially true of people with disabilities. Most people wouldn't go up to someone and ask, "Hey, what happened to you in that horrific accident when you were 6?" But when you are asking a disabled person, "What happened?" you could very well be asking that. It is like people think we owe them a narrative to satisfy their curiosity.
Outside of the games, I'd have to answer the same question. "What happened to your arm?" I used to say something corny like, "God made me this way," but after a while, I needed to spice it up a bit.
You might assume I would look at an able-bodied synchronized swimmer and wish I had a left hand, but I was really thinking about how thin she was.
"What happened to your arm?"
"I got hungry."
"What happened to your arm?"
"Disease. Be careful, it's contagious." (Proceed to rub arm in questioner's face.)
"What happened to your arm?"
"...what? OH... MY...GOD. WHERE IS IT? IT WAS JUST HERE!"
One of the reasons I liked the Empire State Games for the Physically Challenged so much is because no one ever asked what happened. We all had a mutual understanding of each other, and for three days, we all looked the same as everyone else. We were the normal ones; the able-bodied spectators, they were the weirdos.
The first event I participated in was a foot race. I didn't win the race—I had never been much of a runner—but the adrenaline it gave me was intoxicating. I soon began to think about where I might be able to get a gold medal, and I thought I had a shot at swimming. I had always loved the water; I felt less self-conscious—more nimble, more free.
After all the competitions on the ground, the games moved to the pools at Nassau Community College. The buildings seemed enormous to me. I figured we were in New York City. These games must be really important, I thought.
I competed in freestyle and backstroke, and won. The crowd cheered, and two shiny gold medals were slipped over my head. I had never been congratulated for my physical abilities—my intellect, yes, but never my agility. I felt particularly affirmed, like I was just like all the other, normal kids at my school. Better: I was like a jock. I did this with my body, I thought. I won these medals with my strength.
In between races, there was entertainment. The college where the games were held at had a synchronized swimming team. I sat next to my mom, in a big T-shirt over my bathing suit, my goggles hitched up on my forehead, and watched the water ballerinas. Digested them. Memorized their routines. Memorized the curves of their bodies, the symmetry of their limbs, the hardness of their nipples, the sparkles on their swimsuits. I didn't have language for it yet, but I already had begun to establish a hatred for my fat, graceless body in an orange one-piece from JC Penney. You might assume I would look at an able-bodied synchronized swimmer and wish I had a left hand, but I was really thinking about how thin she was and how big her boobs were. I was looking at her thinking the same things that all insecure girls look at women and think. Did I want to do her or be her?
After freestyle and backstroke came breaststroke. I was nervous about this race because I hated breaststroke. Apparently everyone else hated it, too, because only one other person signed up for the race. I got into the water, felt the invigorating itch of chlorine, and turned to size up my opponent. She was pretty and small, wearing a swim cap and blue bathing suit, and being helped into the pool by a mobility device. I don't know what disability she had, but she was allowed to use a boogie board, and an aid was in the water with her. My dad stood in the pool next to me. I didn't really need him there, but the rules stated that all competitors needed a supervisor—every competitor had someone in the water with him or her for accommodations, or in case of an emergency. My guess is, they were afraid of getting sued if a kid drowned.
The gun went off, and I started swimming as hard as I could. I soon began veering to the left a little bit as my right arm propelled me more than my stump did, but my dad would tap me if I started to move over too far. I concentrated so hard on breaststroking, my mind went blank. I didn't realize how important winning was to me until I thought there was a chance I might lose.
After about 10 yards, I stole a glance at my opponent as I came up for air. I had won every race up until now. I wanted to feel that rush again—but she was beating me.
I grew angry at her for thinking she might take it away from me. She wasn't really swimming; her assistant was just pulling her along on the boogie board. She wasn't even doing breaststroke; she was taking a ride. I pushed harder. About a yard away from the finish line, I looked at her again, and we were neck and neck.
Here, I started to panic and froze. So my dad grabbed my arm and yanked me to the finish line. I heard clapping. I had won the race.
What is the meaning of cheating—and of fairness—in an event where everyone has accommodations?
The second I got out of the water, I burst into tears. I was always brought up to respect the rules: My mom was a teacher; my dad, a cop. You might say my regard for the rules was almost disabling. I was angry at myself. I was angry at my dad. I was angry at my competitor, who I refused to look at.
"You deserved to win," my dad justified when I told him why I was upset.
"Not by cheating." But I knew I was happy to have won—in fact, I thought I deserved to win over her. I wiped my tears, which were easily disguisable as I was wet, and I accepted my victory, because there was nothing else to do. I accepted the "congratulations!" from everyone.
What is the meaning of cheating—and of fairness—in an event where everyone has accommodations? At first, I was surprised the crowd still cheered for me even when they had to have seen my dad give me help. That's when I should've learned that it didn't matter: The spectators knew these events were just a fun way of making us feel normal. We were all getting help one way or another.
The realization that I wasn't a good swimmer didn't come until much later, when I tried out for my high school swim team with able-bodied students. I didn't make the cut. I couldn't really keep up; when I wanted to leave, I had difficulty even getting out of the pool. (There were no ladders.) I felt like that insecure girl again, tortured by the perfect synchronized swimmers. I didn't even finish the tryout—I told the coach I had pneumonia and left in tears.
Read more: I Feel Bad About My Nose
In the end, the Empire State Games didn't make me feel better at all, though they were designed to. For some people, these events can be really life-affirming. Some of my opponents went on to become very successful athletes, and the games gave them their start. These events were life-affirming for me too, briefly—it felt good to be valued for my supposed athletic ability, and I grew to enjoy swimming even more. I "trained" at Saf-T-Swim and continued to compete in the games for a few years. I thought I spent this time becoming a better swimmer. But to go on and find out I wasn't actually athletic was crushing.
When I exited the pool after that fateful breaststroke race, I didn't allow myself to look at my opponent. I couldn't know how she was feeling. I couldn't know if she saw my dad pull me to the finish line. I couldn't know if she thought of me as a cheater. I couldn't know if she had a chance to feel victorious, and I took that away from her. I couldn't know if she wanted to be there or if her parents forced her. When I was accepting my gold medals, I felt like I wasn't just a fat, one-handed girl in a JC Penney swimsuit. All the times I had won before—and after; I swam 12 more times during the games—the breaststroke race, I felt strong, unstoppable. But that time was different. That time I felt empty, and I can't help but think it was a sign of the reality check that would later come in my high school pool.