In this blog, we'll introduce you to a remarkable triathlete, a proud member of the Oiselle community, who has soared above societal expectations to celebrate her identity. Volée community member Leah Kaplan invites us along her journey through life and sport, from her childhood, swimming to triathlon and beyond. Leah is a bold, confident adaptive athlete who inspires us to forge our own futures. Join us as she shares her compelling story of self-discovery and resilience, reminding us that our differences are not disabilities but unique strengths that empower us to rewrite our own narratives.
Leah Kaplan: The Maverick Bird
Did you know “maverick” means an independent-minded person? Many of us think of ourselves as independent-minded, but I believe as people, and especially as women, we are often very influenced by what others think and expect of us.
From the day we start school, we get asked what we want to be when we grow up. As I reflect on my younger years, I remember some of my answers to this grand question. They were all influenced by the possibilities and expectations laid out for me before I’d even had much experience with the world - I wanted to be a teacher, a children’s physician, or an interior designer. As kids, many of us are led to believe that there are only certain paths ahead and that our jobs will define our identities. We don’t always think about what hobby we would like to do alongside a career, or how much more there can be to a fulfilling adulthood. My life today is so different from what I pictured as a kid. While I did become a teacher, sports have opened the door to a whole new life. It’s been a journey to forge this new, constantly challenging, but confident reality. It’s been a journey to become a maverick.
I was born in China and I grew up in an orphanage until I was 6 years old. The day I was born, I was rejected because of my difference: I was born missing my left arm below the elbow. I always knew my arm was the reason I was abandoned. I didn’t recognize this feeling of “rejection” until years later.
At age 6, the trajectory of my life changed when I was adopted into a beautiful family and began my life in the Pacific Northwest. It was in my new elementary school that I started to care what others thought of me. I noticed how kids began to realize humans usually have four limbs, but that I did not. Every day, I felt self-conscious, ugly, unworthy, or misunderstood. I wore 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 became fully aware that I was not only a woman, and not only a woman born missing part of her arm, but I was also a woman of color. Asian. I felt pressure from my community to be a certain type of Asian woman. I had difficulties with learning, as English was my second language. I was shy about my struggles in school. I participated in many recreational sports, like soccer, searching for approval and belonging through competition. I didn’t know about adaptive sports yet. Adaptive sports are competitive or recreational sports for people with disabilities and usually run parallel to typical sports. During my junior year of high school, I was introduced to my first adaptive sport: swimming. I fell in love with swimming. I competed around the States with other amputees and gained a sense of acceptance with my identity.
Attending my first swim meet was magical… I felt like I was in Disneyland! There were so many people out there with the same condition as me! I took the opportunity to observe how other athletes adapted their movements and learned how I could improve my swimming. The hardest part of this experience was going back to reality: going back home where I was the only one with one arm. I went through a sort of grief stage. I went back to feeling insecure and not accepting these big parts of myself.
At the age of 16, I decided to strive for the 2008 Beijing Olympics in Paraswim. I dedicated all my free time to swimming. Weekends, at swim meets. After school, at the pool until 7pm. I was young, but I didn’t realize how my age affected my mindset. I thought that every teenager at this age putting hours into their sport must be going for something big like becoming an elite athlete, right? I didn’t know what expectations there were for someone like me competing at this level. Outside of adaptive swimming, I swam on a non-adaptive club swim team. Balancing adaptive life and non-adaptive life was confusing. I didn’t realize how much I blocked myself from processing these two separate lives I was living. My friends didn’t know about my adaptive life. I didn't want anybody to know because I wanted people to see me as someone who could keep up with non-adaptive athletes. I didn’t want a million questions or my adaptive community to get misjudged. I protected my experience. My fear was derived from feeling like I needed to prove something, to prove that I was just as good. But my fear stopped me from getting the full support I needed.
The furthest I made it was competing in the Paralympic Trials in 2007. I really wanted to go to China. China was where my life began, and I wanted to go back to show China how far I’d come. I didn’t fully appreciate my Trials experience because I was so focused on the result: not qualifying for the Paralympic Games. In 2010, I decided to leave the sports world. I felt my athletic lifestyle had to be put away so I could focus on my studies.
A few years after college, I began really struggling with my self-worth. I went through a hard breakup and felt lonely and didn’t like the way my body felt. I questioned what and who I wanted to be. I asked myself, “I’m 27 now, I don’t want to live only to work and pay bills, I want to LIVE. What does it mean to live?”
I just knew I had to start prioritizing MYSELF. I had a lot of college friends who were on the Eastern Washington University cross country team - I admired the girls for their dedication to running. I decided to commit to one month of running: no set mileage, just running to run. I’d be lying if I said my first week was easy… it was absolutely exhausting, mentally and physically. In high school I’d been a sprinter and longer distances were all new to me. Mentally, there were runs where I would self-depreciate myself because of some expectation that wasn’t realistic. It helped me to bring my dog with me on my runs: having him by my side made everything feel less lonely and his joy made me so much happier. I learned a runner isn’t defined by their speed or distance. I learned a lot about myself, and I was reminded how movement could improve my life. I signed up for a local race to motivate myself to stick with it. The moment I crossed that finish line, I felt a sense of personal success.
I started signing up for races and making sports a part of my life again. But there was a part of me that still held on to my memories of high school with my adaptive swim community, and how magical it felt to be surrounded by athletes like me. Every few months, I would do a Google search of adaptive sports near me or cruise around the Paralympic website to see what sports had been added.
One day, I was going through some of my old journals and going through old Facebook friends. I somehow found the profile of a middle school teacher I’d once had - she was a strong badass female P.E. teacher. Seeing her photos brought back a core memory. I remembered talking to her about an Ironman race, and feeling flabbergasted that someone could do all three sports in one day! I remember thinking “Maybe I could do that one day?”. I decided I had to be brave and do something that would reignite my younger self. I dove back into googling adaptive sports opportunities and found an adaptive Paratriathlon camp offered by USA Triathlon. Some boldness overcame me and I decided to apply for this camp. I didn’t own a bike, nor did I know how to do a triathlon.
Luckily, I got into the Talent ID camp at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. At the camp, I was surrounded by the most humble and greatest people. I was shocked that I was not the only one starting a new sport at the age of 27… in fact, I was one of the youngest! I’d be lying if I said this camp was not challenging. I had to let go of what I thought I knew about my capabilities in a new sport. I physically had what it takes but mentally, I knew I needed to get stronger. I was inspired by the different ages and capabilities of the athletes. I was not inspired because these athletes could succeed despite their disabilities - I was inspired by their authentic vulnerability and courage to show up. These athletes demonstrated the beauty of advocating as an adult. Advocating for us, and for the younger generation.
After the camp, I was hooked on the triathlon world. Fall of 2019, I decided to sign up for my first triathlon… the Ironman 70.3 in Coeur d'Alene. I immediately messaged my middle school teacher to tell her what I’d just done. She responded with nothing but encouraging words. I bought a Walmart road bike and taught myself how to ride a bike. Biking did not come easy, it was a love-hate relationship. Every time I fell I would get so frustrated with myself. There were many days I struggled to run. Or swim. But I was determined and kept challenging myself.
My first competitive triathlon was surreal. I was overwhelmed with the bike setup and the amount of people. I was nervous because I didn’t know what to expect of myself: my main goal was just to finish. When I saw the red carpet, I started crying and it felt so magical. I was so proud of myself. I said I would do something and I did it!
After completing my first half Ironman, I wanted to learn how to compete as a para-athlete, with people who were like me. When I’d stopped competing in parasports, I’d also lost being in a community of adaptive people. My experience at the Paratriathlon camp reminded me how great it was to be surrounded by people living a similar experience to me, and that feeling stayed with me. It just could not be compared to exercising at home alone. I emailed and signed up for any Paratriathlon events I could find. In 2020, I dedicated time to train for my first Paratriathlon, and in 2021, I qualified for my first Paratriathlon event. And what a journey it’s been since! As of 2023, I have completed 12 Paratriathlon events and have dedicated my daily life to triathlon training.
There’s something about the community of Paratriathlon - everyone comes in all different sizes, shapes, and ages, and I feel inspired by my teammates to embrace the part of me I’d been convinced was not important to my identity. My disability. I don’t compete to win or seek anyone’s approval anymore. Thanks to my paratriathlon community, I chose to start competing for myself. I began to see myself in a different light - I had been disabling myself by hiding my arm in public and preventing myself from authentically showing up. My disability had been my mindset, and it kept me from reaching my true potential.
My biggest flex throughout this journey is my friends and teammates. Sometimes, you show up not knowing anything and you leave with a full heart. You truly can build community and make new friends at any age! I have coaches who are in their 40s, and still competing in triathlons! They always remind me that I don’t have to stop this sport just because I am getting older. The better mindset is more like: you have so many more years to excel at this sport! Age really is just a number. More importantly, it’s what you do throughout the process that brings you a full heart.
I give myself the name Maverick because I truly have taken my experiences as badges of honor. My badges created my idea of how disability is defined and how I want to be represented as an Asian female with different abilities. Now that I am a 32-year-old athlete, I have become more purposeful in what and who I surround myself with. I follow many Asian community profiles via social media. I was shocked at first, how there are so many people who have felt the same way as me about their journeys to paving their own way.
I believe the word disability has been categorized as a negative personal label for our community. Now that I have heard and observed our adaptive community, I don’t see the word disability as a personal negative “attack”. Disability doesn’t identify a population. Disability is about the environment preventing us from having access. If our environment is not accessible, then we become disabled. Disable means to prevent. We, as adaptive athletes, are trying to find more ways to live a fulfilling active life. No matter what age. We are meant to fly high, but our ways of flying just look a little different.
We thank Leah for being courageous and telling her story to our community! Do you have a story you want to tell? Let us know below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.