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Challenged Athletes Foundation

From the blog of Max Conserva

It’s Sunday 9am in La Jolla, California and I’m naked in public for the first time in my life. I’m sitting on a folding chair surrounded by a few thousand others who have traveled here to occupy the nicely manicured park for the day. An energy, unnatural for this early in the morning, emanates from the mass. The buzzing crowd and brightly colored temporary structures create a surreal feel that complements the strange level of comfort I am experiencing. Athletes move hurriedly to specific destinations. Spectators seem to rush around to nowhere in particular. I simply sit, my stare far-off, my race done. My gaze transitions back into the foreground, the shaved head of a competitor takes focus directly in front of me. We are in mid-conversation, his rapid speech aligned with the pitch of the commotion. Like me, he has just completed the one mile open water swim of the Challenged Athletes Foundation San Diego Triathlon. A swim that only one month ago I had no idea how I would complete. With his speedy monologue seemingly only near it’s midpoint, I subconsciously give myself permission to drift off again. I look down at the white towel wrapped around my waist. It’s only long enough to cover down to around my knees. I gaze further down, past the towel, to my deformed right leg. I see it all in the morning sun. The awkward angle, the abnormal rotation, the child-like girth, the wholesale vacancy of standard anatomical reference points. I know these hallmarks well. I have stared at them for the last twenty-five years. My stare deepens, past the physical damage to the emotional scaring that lies beneath. Hopelessness. Embarrassment. Inadequacy. Shame. A familiar urge begins welling within to grab for another towel and cover up my limb. However, for the first time in my life, I don’t. I simply continue to stare. Then, spell broken, I look up and reengage in the conversation.

In 1989, at the age of eight, my body and a twenty ton semi-truck attempted to occupy the same space. Marred from that day forward, I became an expert at hiding the resulting damage. It started small. I stopped wearing shorts. I only bought pants that were baggy enough to hide the abnormal contour of my leg. I wouldn’t change clothes in front of others. For most of my life this self-preservation was seemingly superficial, a minor inconvenience, an everyday accommodation. However in the last few years I began to realize how deep the charade had progressed. I noticed how more and more I was tactically managing the environments I was exposing myself to. Heeding an anxious inner voice to avoid potentially uncomfortable situations. Hot tubbing? Nope, everyone will see my awkward leg on the way to the tub. Pick-up basketball? I can wear trackmax-conserva-blog pants but I don’t want people to see me limping around the court. Beach? Okay, but I will wear pants and not go in the water. Every activity had to first pass this screen. I’d attempted to banish my deformity to an unscalable tower, behind a locked gate, in a sealed box, convinced the imprisonment would nullify it’s impact on the rest of my life. However in doing so I successfully accomplished the opposite. I inserted my fear into a position of maximum effect; I had granted it first veto power over every decision in my life. Regardless of the merit of the experience, fear now stood as the unyielding judge, jury and executioner. What I’d attempted to relegate to a corner now held court over the rest of my faculties.

After living for decades under this arrangement of inhibitions and lost opportunities, I began to grow weary. Emotionally exhausted, it became abundantly clear that the bargain I made so long ago was holding me back. With the path to unwind this construct unclear, I did the only thing I could think of, walk straight towards my fear. Force myself into situations where I had to deal with the uncomfortable. The last year of navigating this path has taken me many places, this weekend I found myself at a triathlon. A competition I committed to specifically because I knew with the crowds of people there would be nowhere to hide. Where would I change into my wetsuit in privacy? How would I manage getting down to the beach without the brace that covered up my disability? I didn’t have the time to fret over the answers because a much larger question loomed. How do I swim a mile in the waves without drowning? I had no training. No trainer. No wetsuit. No access to a pool. My first time in the water revealed, with my horrible technique, that I couldn’t swim more than 100 yards before losing my breath. By signing up with only four weeks to prepare, I placed myself in an emergency situation that required an override of all normal operating procedures. Under threat of flood, the court was indefinitely suspended, all veto powers revoked.

I didn’t drown. In seven days I found a pool, a wetsuit and even a trainer of sorts. In fourteen days I swam a half mile. In twenty-one I swam my first mile. On race day, my fifth time in open water, I smashed my previous time by over fifteen minutes which even included mid-race breaks for pictures and a pee. A few years ago I would have never dreamed of sitting in a public place so exposed, my disability naked for all to see. I now sit casually in the triathlon transition area among other challenged athletes, individuals who, by virtue of their presence, overthrew the same internal arbitrator. It has been a long road to this point, and I know there is still work to be done. The specter remains. I can still feel it as a layer upon me. But now it’s thin, almost transparent. The sting has been blunted. I’m buoyed by a new sense of contentment, the exhilaration of accomplishment, the spent adrenaline of physical exhaustion, but perhaps most of all, by the knowledge of a commitment to another competition in less than 7 days. A completely different event, in a different city, with a new set of urgent questions. Court will have to remain dismissed.

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Change lives this holiday season and join CAF in raising “$2K A DAY” through the month of December. Together, we can help fund at least 31 more athletes in the new year.

CAF receives more and more grant requests each year. And while CAF was able to fulfill 88% of requests last year, sadly hundreds were left on the sidelines due to lack of funding. That’s where your gift comes in.

By making a tax deductible donation this December, you can help CAF fulfill the wish of a challenged athlete and approve even more grants in 2015.

For people with physical challenges, playing sports builds confidence, improves health and paves the way for a happy and successful life.

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By: Scout Bassett, CAF Athlete & Spokesperson

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Many who have followed my journey know about the successes, the wins, the records, but there remains a story that I haven’t told enough. There are only two reasons that I am where and who I am today as an athlete and human being. First and foremost, I serve a God who has helped me to rise above so much pain, loss, and adversity in my life. And equally as important, He has surrounded me with the most incredible people to navigate life’s peaks and valleys.

Sometimes our greatest challenge is building the courage to start. I’ve gotten to countless start lines because of the Challenged Athletes Foundation. I grew up paralyzed by fear, embarrassed to be an amputee and ashamed of my story. I never once thought that someone who was burned in a fire, lived 7 years as an orphan in China, and faced with a rocky upbringing here in America was destined to do great things in this world. A childhood of largely marginalized experiences left me deflated and discouraged about my future. Truthfully, I did not think I belonged anywhere. When I wasn’t sitting on the sidelines of soccer fields or basketball courts, I occupied my time by reading every political memoir or biography from John Adams to Ronald Reagan by 7th grade! Oh did I mention I was/am a complete dork??

My breakthrough came in 2002 when a single piece of equipment (an Össur running leg) that I received through a CAF grant, changed me from the inside out. I ran for the first time at 14 years old and I haven’t stopped since. Running became a healing power in my life and transformed me from a painfully shy recluse to a young woman with confidence, passion, and drive. I made a vow to myself that I would never be ashamed of my story or who I am and from that moment on, I set out to run down every dream and conquer every fear and every struggle. I no longer wanted to merely exist, but found my calling in living to serve and help others fulfill their purpose. Yes a single piece of adaptive sports equipment changed the way I thought and lived!

My first time running – ever!

You may hear a thousand “Nos” but it only takes one “Yes” to change your life. If you have a dream or a goal, apply for a CAF Access for Athletes grant and make it happen! Perhaps your dream is to run around with your kids or maybe you want to be the next Paralympic champion – whatever your vision is, it all starts HERE. Let nothing stop you from doing what you love and loving what you do.

They say it’s not what you have, but who you have in life that counts. I do life with the best team in the world – my family, friends, coach, mentors, role models, mentees, and supporters. Truly it is this ‘A Team’ that keeps my heart beating. If you are reading this, I thank you for believing in me even when I did not believe in myself, for lifting me up when I’ve fallen, and for teaching me to live courageously.

I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize that on this Thanksgiving, I am immensely grateful for my CAF family and supporters who took me from nothing to something. If you’ve ever wondered whether or not your efforts have made a difference in this world, I can assure you that you have done just that and so much more. My story is possible because of YOU! There are no words to adequately express my appreciation, but I hope this is a start: Thank you for allowing me to live a life beyond my dreams.

With love and gratitude,

SB

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On Veterans Day, our nation rises to salute and honor the service of all American military veterans and first responders. And while we hope you join us in thanking the military veterans in your life, as a supporter of the Challenged Athletes Foundation’s (CAF) Operation Rebound program, you honor and thank our military veterans EVERY DAY.

At CAF’s Operation Rebound program, we work daily to make sure our injured military have the support and equipment necessary for them to return to the warrior they once were, and still are within. Your support helps us get injured military personnel like Brad Snyder from the frontline to the finish line.

Veterans Day Featured Athlete: Brad Snyder

“We can’t choose the challenges we will face, we can only choose how we will face each challenge.  We can choose to face them with courage.  We can choose to be resilient, and to never back down.” 

Brad Snyder was an accomplished swimmer during his younger years in St. Petersburg, Florida, so much so that he eventually became captain of the swim team at the U.S. Naval Academy. Little did Brad know that swimming would one day be a form of rehabilitation for him.

In September of 2011, Snyder was in Afghanistan when an IED explosion permanently blinded him. Snyder soon realized that his life would forever be changed. But not completely changed. He still had swimming. “The pool wasn’t anything I necessarily had to adapt to,” he said. Snyder chose swimming as not only a form of personal rehabilitation, but as a way of showing his loved ones that he would be able to retain some normalcy in his life—that he would be OK. Snyder quickly exceled in para-swimming. Within one year of his injury, Snyder won two gold medals and a silver at the 2012 London Paralympic Games.

Recently, he was selected to represent the United States at the 2014 Pan Pacific Para-Swimming Championships. He’s not done, though. Snyder would like to go to the 2016 Paralympics as a triathlete, and he also competes in track. “Hopefully,” he says, “my performance will inspire people to adopt a positive outlook and face challenges with a lot of courage and virtue.”

Veterans Day Featured Athlete: Brad Snyder

Brad winning the Gold at the 2012 Paralympics

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Brad and his swim guide competing at the 2014 San Diego Triathlon Challenge with CAF!

CAF 2015 Grant Application Live Q&A Event

Join us for a LIVE Q&A session on Facebook and Twitter to answer your questions about CAF’s Access for Athletes Grant Application process. 

The 2015 Access for Athletes Grant Application is only open for ONE MORE MONTH, and it is imperative that all applicants complete and submit their applications before 12/5 at 5 p.m. PST.

If you have a physical disability that is recognized within the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) classifications, you are eligible to apply. CAF does not discriminate based on age, gender, level of ability or sport, but does require applicants to demonstrate a clear financial need for their grant request.

Access for Athletes is CAF’s flagship program — and steps in where rehabilitation and health insurance end by providing funding grants for equipment such as sports wheelchairs, handcycles, mono skis and sports prosthetics, and resources for training and competition expenses. Access for Athletes surmounts financial impediments to participation in sports, ensuring that challenged athletes are not left on the sidelines because they can’t afford expensive equipment or training costs. CAF believes participation in sports not only increases physical fitness and activity levels, but also enhances confidence and self-esteem.

In an effort to help answer some of your questions about how to apply for a grant, CAF will be hosting a LIVE social media Q&A session on Wednesday, November 5th. 
From 4 to 5 p.m. PST on 11/5, CAF staff members will be on hand to answer grantee questions on CAF’s Facebook and Twitter pages. 

HOW TO JOIN: 
RSVP to the Facebook event here
Any time before or during the event, submit your questions any of the following ways:
FACEBOOK:
- Post on the Facebook event page
- Comment on CAF’s announcement post on our Facebook timeline

TWITTER: Tweet @CAFoundation and include the hashtag #CAFGrantQA

You will receive “real time” responses from CAF between 4PM and 5PM on November 5.

WHAT TO DO BEFORE THE Q&A:
Please read the Frequently Asked Questions on our website at www.challengedathletes.org/GrantFAQ before the Q&A to see if your question has already been answered and to get an idea of what type of questions you would like to ask. Here are some suggested questions:

1. Who can write my medical reference letter, and what should it say?
2. How long should my biography be?
3. What if I want to go to multiple competitions throughout the year?
4. What is the equipment item I want is not in the dropdown list?
5. What is included in a coaching/training grant?

Remember, you can start submitting your questions NOW!

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