Leah Kaplan: My Challenges Don’t Define Me

Paratriathlete Leah Kaplan shares her inspiring story.

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Twenty eight years ago, I was born with a congenital limb difference from the elbow down. This happened in China, and I was abandoned at only two days old, due to my physical difference.

From the day I was born, I was rejected based off of my difference. I always knew my arm was the reason I was abandoned. As a kid, I started to care what others thought of me, and noticed how kids started to realize humans usually have all four limbs, but I did not, I knew I stood out. I felt self-conscious every day. I would wear long sleeves on purpose to hide my arm. I wanted people to see me for me first – I wanted people to ask for my name before asking about my arm.

In high school, I began to participate in adaptive sports, and fell in love with swimming. I competed around the states with other amputees, and gained so much confidence. There were so many people out there who had the same condition as me! It was then that I began to see myself in a different light: I had been disabling myself by hiding my arm in public or preventing myself from doing an activity. My disability was my mind, which kept me from reaching my true potential. If I wanted to accept my disabled mind, I had to accept my capabilities.

From that point on, I never gave up on myself. I was always thinking of new ways to adapt. Sometimes I would fail, but that only meant I was at least trying. I came to realize that everyone has challenges in their life, but how we adapt to those challenges determines our success.

One year ago, I gained the courage to register for Ironman 70.3 Coeur d’Alene. Though I had been a swimmer for years and knew how to run, I had no idea how to really become a triathlete. But I loved the idea of completing three sports in one day, and went all-in on preparation. At the age of 27, I learned how to ride a bike. Because I am missing half of my left arm, I had a hard time using my handlebars shifting. But instead of giving up, I searched for solutions: a third handlebar that extended from the left side bar, trying a prosthetic hand, swapping out my tri bars for a mountain bike bar, moving the shifters to the right-hand side. Things started to fall into place, and every time I found a new solution, I gained even more confidence about using my bike.

The more I trained, the more confident I became. I got over feeling self-conscious wearing a tank top outside or biking with three handle bars in the public. On the hard days, when I started to question why I was doing this, I’d catch myself starting to cry, and remember not to let my mind stop me. I’d say out loud: “I am about to complete an Ironman 70.3. On my own!” That would always make me smile.

And I did it. I did that 70.3 triathlon, and I won my division with an even bigger smile than I began with. Today, I’m at a training camp for paratriathletes. I love this sport and what it’s done for me.

I didn’t overcome my physical disability in order to become a triathlete. I overcame my mind, which was disabling me in so many ways. Instead of feeling left out and judged, I had to accept that people would question my abilities, but that didn’t mean those things were true. I couldn’t let anyone’s negative words consume me. My challenges don’t define me. People don’t get to say who I am. I do, and I found myself through my journey of training for a triathlon. Each mile was a mile closer to me.

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