Lessons from Top Athletes with Disabilities

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Coaches are likely to have student-athletes with disabilities as part of their classes or teams.

Nothing stops Kyle Maynard. In addition to being a champion wrestler and mixed martial arts fighter, Maynard has climbed both Kilimanjaro and Mount Aconcagua and gone skydiving over Oahu. Plus, he can bench press 360 pounds. He’s also a certified Cross-Fit instructor and owner of his own gym.

“I am an athlete driven by competition,” Maynard told Bleacher Report. “Without the sport of wrestling, I would not be where I am today.”

Reaching the upper levels of a sport requires effort and sacrifice for any athlete, but Maynard has had to work harder than most.

Born with a condition called congenital amputation, Maynard is missing his arms below the elbow and his legs below the knee. But encouragement from his family, creative thinking by his coaches, and an innate determination to succeed have helped propel him to success in sports and life.

Graduates of a master’s in coaching program are likely to have student-athletes with disabilities as part of their classes or teams. Coaching resources can help athletic leaders at the intercollegiate level promote inclusion, especially in light of federal laws requiring equal access to sports participation.

And, of course, sharing stories and lessons of professional athletes with disabilities can inspire all young sportsmen and sportswomen to excel.

Here’s a look at three successful pro sports role models:

Jim Abbott: The Value of Adversity

Jim Abbot, who was born without a right hand, enjoyed 10 successful seasons in major league baseball, including pitching a no-hitter in September 1993 against the Cleveland Indians when he was with the Yankees.

Abbott is a motivational speaker these days, and few former athletes have been more celebrated during their time on the field or had a more compelling message afterward.

“Obviously, missing a hand growing up played a big part in who I was and my drive and my ambition,” Abbott told Baseball in America. “From that, you can’t help but take away the idea that sometimes a little adversity, a little challenge in our lives, can be the push that we need to find the strength and the resiliency inside of us, and really to win an appreciation for the other blessings that we have.”

Abbott became interested in athletics at a young age. His parents tried to steer him toward soccer – a sport where he could use his legs – but he was determined to play baseball like the other kids in the neighborhood.

But the left-hander needed a way to do with one hand what his peers did with two. His dad helped devise a creative solution.

“He spent hours throwing a rubber ball against a brick wall and catching it on the rebound,” according to the Society for American Baseball Research. “His father helped him develop the technique for handling his glove-hand switch which allowed Jim to throw and catch the ball with the same hand.”

It worked – he joined a Little League team when he was 11 and pitched a no-hitter in his first game. A standout in college, he went on to play in the Olympics, where he led the U.S. team to victory over Japan, 5-3. As a pro, he joined the California Angels in 1989 and retired from the Milwaukee Brewers after the 1999 season.

Today, he lives in California with his wife and two daughters, both of whom are athletes.

Kyle Maynard: Find Your Mountain

Through adversity, Maynard attributes his determination and ability to overcome mental and environmental barriers to his parents.

“He couldn’t stand or walk or use his hands. He had to be fed at every meal. This went on for a few years, until one day Kyle’s father announced that the family would no longer help feed Kyle,” according to “Heart of a Champion” on Bleacher Report.

“Kyle’s father’s reasoning was simple; he knew that one day his son would live on his own, and he would need to know how to take care of himself. So Kyle learned how to eat, using a prosthetic spoon, and eventually regular silverware.”

Just like his friends, young Maynard played on the playground, learned to cook, and dreamed of being the sports hero who dated cute cheerleaders.

His parents even let him go out for the football team in the sixth grade, where he played nose tackle and aimed to make coaches and other players see him as “a defensive lineman who could inflict more damage than anyone else had before,” Bleacher Report noted.

Then, in the offseason, he discovered wrestling. His early efforts, however, were disappointing – 35 straight loses. Then, about a year and a half into the sport and with help from his mentor, Coach Ramos, who helped him develop some special techniques, he finally started winning.

He’s never stopped. In addition to his business ventures, Maynard shares his “no excuses” philosophy as a motivational speaker and through his website, where he encourages others to “find your mountain and we’ll climb it together.”

Marla Runyon: Challenges are Gifts

Marla Runyon’s reaction to finding out, at age 9, that she had Stargardt’s Disease, a form of macular degeneration, was to run – literally.

“When I was diagnosed with Stargardt’s, it felt like the expectations around me just fell,” she told Limitless Pursuits, a website that showcases stories about people who beat the odds in athletics, adventure, and travel.

“No one really expected me to do much,” she said. “Before that time, I was expected to be a good student, to go to college, and so on. But after the diagnosis, it was like, ‘Marla, just do your best.’”

Angered by that attitude, she pushed herself to “hold higher expectations for myself than what others held for me, and to prove to others that I had value and that I could excel. …The track ultimately became my venue to prove myself. The track was everything I was about: challenge, accountability, determination, and competition.”

During most of her competitive sports years, including high school, college, and her early training to qualify for the Olympics, she competed against sighted runners. Unlike many of her peers, she was versatile enough to move easily from sprints to middle- and long-distance events, including marathons in New York, Boston, Chicago, and other cities.

She was the first legally blind athlete to compete in the Olympics (in 2000 in Sydney, Australia), and clocked the fastest finish in the event for an American woman. She has also won five gold medals in Paralympics events.

After retiring from competitive running, she earned a master’s degree in special education (her second one – the first was in communicative disorders) and taught students who were blind in Oregon schools. She has also been a teacher and ambassador for the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA – Helen Keller’s alma mater – and today coaches at the university level with her husband and former coach, Matt Lonergan.

Ohio University’s Online Master of Coaching Education Program

Ohio University’s master’s in coaching program is a nationally recognized leader in preparing coaches to lean and mentor student-athletes with a wide range of abilities at all levels of competition.

The online format allows coaches to maintain their professional and family responsibilities while advancing their education and leadership skills. For more information, contact Ohio University today.

Recommended Reading:

Team Motivational Techniques: What Are They and How Do They Work?

4 Common Traits of Expert Coaches

Coaching Youth with Disabilities


Driven by competition: Bleacher Report

Where Are They Now? Jim Abbott: Baseball in America

Jim Abbott: Society for American Baseball Research

Heart of a Champion: Bleacher Report

Find Your Mountain: Kyle Maynard

Marla Runyan: America’s inspirational runner: Limitless Pursuits