What I’ve Learned from Adaptive Athletes

By Cody Sowa

One of my best friends is an adaptive athlete. She lost her left leg due to a helicopter crash in Afghanistan while serving as a door gunner and mechanic in the United States Marines. Most of us would think that if an injury like that occurred to us, we’d have to give up our adventurous lifestyles. I know that thought would be on my mind if I were in that situation. Thankfully, Kirstie Ennis is not the kind of person to let an injury/disability limit her potential. In reality, it accelerated her outdoor lifestyle and she picked up snowboarding, rock/ice climbing and mountaineering AFTER her amputation.

Adaptive Athlete Rock Climbing

When I was diagnosed with a rapidly growing Stage 3 tumor/cancer in my left leg two years ago, I was understandably devastated. My oncologist told me that 15-20 years prior, the treatment for my cancer was to amputate one joint above the tumor (which would have been my hip). Thankfully I didn’t lose my left leg or any part of it. I did intense chemotherapy, 35 radiation sessions and surgery. Not an enjoyable experience in the least, but I’m reminded often that it could have been far worse.

After my good friend Kirstie began to gain traction in the news and on social media for her persistence in learning new skills and conquering fears, she decided to start her own non-profit that helps different groups gain access to the outdoors through sponsored and guided adventures. Many people who have suffered mental and/or physical trauma tend to shy away from difficult or scary outdoor activities. I’ve been lucky enough to assist and photograph each of the events that she’s put on so far. Each time I’ve helped out, I feel like I leave the clinics with as much inspiration as the participants do, if not more. 

I was scared of rock climbing for just about my entire life. I’m not even that afraid of heights, it just always looked and felt more dangerous than enjoyable. A little over a year ago, post-cancer treatment, I decided that it was time for me to conquer one of my many fears. So, I bought a climbing gym membership and started with bouldering. Eventually moved to indoor gym top rope climbing. After six months, I took my lead climbing course and started really pushing myself far beyond my comfort level. It continues to be one of the best and most challenging activities that I participate in. It excites me and also still terrifies me. But after watching men and women without a hand or leg push themselves on the rock, ice or snow I’m reminded how truly fortunate I am to only have the fear that I currently do. My fear could be considered minuscule compared to fears brought on by an amputation, PTSD, my gender, my skin color, sexual orientation, etc. 

In short, be grateful and always keep safely pushing yourself to discover your unlimited potential!