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#MyTri: Teacher, Student, Bond Over Limb Difference and a Love of Bikes

Teacher and paratriathlete Leah Kaplan shares why she donated her adaptive bike to a young student who shares the same limb difference.

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In #MyTri, we let triathletes share their own stories. Submit your story and photo for consideration by emailing us at letters@triathlete.com with “My Tri” in the subject line. If we choose your story for publication we’ll be in touch.

It was January 2022 and I was walking down the hallway of my new teaching job. A young scholar scurried past, a cape of cascading blonde hair following her. She stopped, and so did I. Before I had a chance to say something to the student, she turned, held up her little arm, and said, “Oh, my gosh! I have one, too!”

The student, Reagan, and I both shared something special: a limb difference in the right arm. I was excited about this connection, and as it turned out, she was, too. The next day, her grandmother shared with me how Reagan ran into the house, excitedly chattering: “There is a teacher with one arm! She is an actual teacher! She is going to be there every day!”

(Photo: Leah Kaplan)

As a teacher, I take my responsibility as a role model seriously. In addition to the standard reading, writing, and arithmetic curriculum, I try to model physical and mental health. It hasn’t always been easy. Prior to this new teaching job, I was in a role where I was struggling a lot, and had been losing my joy for daily activities. I had made the unbelievably risky decision to leave my job in the middle of the school year, accepting a new position at a different school district as a form of self-care. 

My saving grace during this difficult time was triathlon. My first race was in 2019, and I had worked hard to improve in the sport. Three months ago, I competed in my first World Cup paratriathlon race. Everyone was cheering me on to pursue this triathlon journey, and I knew my tri life was something in which I wanted to invest my time and energy. I wanted to aim for the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.

RELATED: What is Paratriathlon? Understanding Triathlon in the Paralympics

My new teaching job, a part-time role, allowed me to do this. It also gave me the time and space to prioritize my mental and physical health. I had to put myself in order to be the person I wanted to become. It was a tough decision, but when I met Reagan, however,  I knew I had absolutely made the right decision.

As part of my focus on paratriathlon at this time, I was in the middle of purchasing a new bike. My old bike, a modified mountain bike, didn’t fit the standards for the level of racing I do now. It’s hard enough to find a new bike when you’re only five feet tall, like I am, but when you only have one hand, things start to get a little more complicated. I remembered how grateful I was when I found someone who could help me adapt my first bike to my needs. I had more resources now for finding adaptive equipment, but my mind immediately turned to Reagan. I didn’t want my old bike to get dumped at a shop somewhere, and besides, it was already set up for our similar bodies. I called Regan’s grandmother and asked if she would like a bike. It didn’t have pedals, but the shifters, adapted for use with only one hand, were good as new. Reagan’s grandmother was excited – I was, too.

The next day, I met Reagan and her family in the school’s parking lot. The bike fit her like Cinderella’s shoe, and the transformation I saw was equally as magical. As they walked away with the bike, tears filled my eyes as I thought about how that bike changed my life. It started my triathlon journey, and three years later, I was able to give Reagan that same opportunity. 

(Photo: Leah Kaplan)

When I watch Reagan ride, I feel like I am watching my younger self manifest into who I am today. I needed someone like me when I was younger. I would have loved to have a teacher missing a hand, too. 

All I want to do as a teacher and in my athletic career is to make an impact and bring positive awareness. My impact goal is to make more people feel a part of something big. Our daily tasks are nothing “extra” than what somebody else without a disability can do. But I want to share my “extra” to impact someone’s life.

Today, Reagan is a confident 2nd grader. Her family has done a wonderful job in embracing her difference. She has not had much experience with being around people like her, like us, and because of our connection, we both have gained a life-changing experience. I want Reagan to feel she is never limited with sports. I plan on seeing Reagan completing a triathlon in her near future. Until then, I know she enjoys riding that bike!

RELATED: Leah Kaplan: My Challenges Don’t Define Me