When I graduated from University of Illinois in December 2013 I was invited to give a speech. I was a little unsure of what I should speak about. I wanted it to be inspiring to everyone and about my unique abilities, not about having a disability. —Tatyana
They say that the journey toward one’s future begins with one single step. For me, that first step was probably different than yours – but it was not a journey of hardship as many often imagine. It was a journey filled with hope, with strength, and with courage–important ingredients for a successful life, whatever your age might be.
As I look back at my 24-year journey–from an orphanage in St. Petersburg, Russia to this day of graduation from the University of Illinois–I am overwhelmed with gratitude for those who have helped along the way. Who could have imagined, 24 years ago, that this was even possible?
I spent my first six years of life at the orphanage and will be forever grateful for the care that I received. From stories my mom tells me, the orphanage did their best to accommodate my independent spirit and stubborn determination that became apparent at a very early age. I must have been a handful!
It was that independent spirit–that dogged determination–that kept me going. Unable to stand, crawl, or walk–and with no wheelchair available–I taught myself how to walk on my hands, using my arms as “legs.” That simple act of walking on my hands helped develop the muscles in my arms, back, and shoulders that have brought me so much success on the track…and in life–convincing me that we are who we are from the moment we are born. It is our job to take the gifts that we are given and use them the best way that we can.
While parents sometimes make us crazy–my adoptive family has been the greatest gift of all. I have been blessed with parents and two sisters and an extended family that see the potential in everyone. My parents fought battles for equal access in my early years and helped me develop a “voice” so I could share in the fight. When I was in high school, I fought (with my mom at my side) for the right to race alongside able-bodied runners on my high school track team. We achieved victory in Howard County, Maryland–creating new law that has been embraced nationwide – forever changing the face of high school athletics.
When you spend your first six years in an orphanage, you never take your parents or your family for granted. And you say thank you each and every day for the opportunities they have given you–the doors they have opened–and the dreams that they have helped become reality.
They get the credit for introducing me to the University of Illinois more than 10 years ago. They knew about the University’s exceptional wheelchair athletic program and signed me up for summer basketball camp. One trip to the campus and I was hooked. No longer the only wheelchair athlete on the team, I was surrounded by others with the same dreams of achievement in academics and in sports that had become my way of life.
When I got here, I enrolled in ACES–they charted my excellent course of study in Human Development while Adam Bleakney took over from a sports perspective and molded me into the athlete I have become. I will be forever grateful to University of Illinois and ACES for the learning–for the coaching–and for setting the “gold standard” for all colleges and universities who seek to accommodate people with disabilities in all aspects of school life.
Fast forward through national, world, and Paralympic competitions–lots and lots of marathons–a medal or two along the way–and a new dream of competing in the winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia next year…and you get the story of my life. But the story of my life is not what matters here. What matters is what I learned along the way.
Here are a few of the lessons I have learned from this improbable journey of “one”...which is really a journey of “many.” A journey of family, friends, professors, academic advisors, coaches, and all who have enriched my life these past 24 years.
This is what I have learned:
First: Don’t take anything for granted. Life is a gift. Our education is a gift. The fact that we sleep in warm homes–have family and friends who care for us–and have food on our table each day. These are all very precious gifts that many in the world do not enjoy. It is incumbent upon our generation to put our many blessings to work as volunteers in soup kitchens, youth leaders on playgrounds, and as advocates for those who don’t have a voice. We must promise, in the days–months–and years ahead, to raise our hands and say “Yes, I can help.” It is only in giving that we can truly receive.
Second: Say thank you to everyone. It is easy to make the assumption that because we have worked hard, we deserve what we receive and that “thank yous” are not required. I would argue that “thank yous” are always required. When things go well, we need say thank you to everyone who helped along the way. When things go badly, we still need to say thank you. Thank you to those who helped us learn the lessons that only mistakes can teach. Every mistake we make and every thank you we give brings us closer to success.
And last: Do not to put limits on your dreams. If you want it bad enough, you must try. And if you miss the first time, you must try again. Don’t let others tell you that your dreams are too big–or your ambitions impractical. This country, the home of so many great discoveries, was built by people just like us who would not put limits on their dreams. We must learn to listen to that drive within us–that drive to explore, to experiment, to try something new. If we all listen carefully to that drive within, there is no limit to what we can achieve in life.
And now we all begin the next chapter in our life’s journey–each one will be different, unique, and of our own making.
Let us all be blessed with the goodness of life–and let us do our best to live a life that is worth remembering.