It all started the day I was born—literally, the moment I entered this world. After some difficulties in labor, I sustained a brachial plexus injury to my right shoulder, a traumatic birth injury that left the nerves between my neck and shoulder damaged to the point that my right arm was barely able to move. I lived with this partial paralysis for a few years, eventually getting a tendon transfer surgery at the age of 3 from Boston Children’s Hospital. The procedure provided more mobility and flexibility in my right arm, but severe limitations in my ability to bear weight or put my arm in unnatural positions. To this day, I can’t put my right arm behind my back or lift a weight above my head without struggle.
I went through the physical therapy ringer, but eventually found other activities to sustain my rehabilitation process and have some fun while I was at it. I went into dance and gymnastics, which I kept up for about 10 years. It was through dance that I started to notice differences about myself compared to my peers. The simplest thing like putting my hand on my hip was almost impossible, but I was innocent enough to think of it as something I just wasn’t good at as opposed to something I would never be able to do. It was also the first time I felt successful in my own right. In an activity that cares mostly about appearance and talent, it felt good to be recognized on account of mine.
After my dance era was over, I picked up other sports to keep my arm moving and to pursue the success I found through dance and gymnastics. Things like basketball and softball were inherently more difficult for someone with my injury, but I found unique ways to be a valuable player. I was always the kid with the intangibles. I might not make a right side hook shot or have the quickest hands in the infield, but I would take a charge no questions asked or slide headfirst if it meant scoring for my team. When skilled players started to catch up with these intangibles, I went for a sport that was less arm-dominant where I thought I could excel. I’ve been a field hockey goalkeeper ever since.
"When I’m between the pipes, I feel agile and strong, smart and composed, and I feel like the most valuable player every time I touch the ball. And for a time, I felt limitless."
Field hockey is a distinctive sport, and goalkeeping is even more special. It requires every muscle you have to be fired off in a split second, all of which you have to do at the most crucial moments in a game. Goalkeeping is entirely mental, it’s about connecting your mind to the farthest reaches of your body and pushing past the fear of getting hit with a slap shot. There is natural talent to be had in field hockey, sure, but its appeal to me was that I could out-think any shot I faced. When I’m between the pipes, I feel agile and strong, smart and composed, and I feel like the most valuable player every time I touch the ball. And for a time, I felt limitless.
"I convinced myself it was a privilege to have an invisible injury, and so I kept it hidden."
It wasn’t until I became a high performance athlete that the truths of my condition started to reveal themselves. I faced scrutiny from coaches, but I didn’t know how to advocate for myself. I was taught that the athletic community would think less of me if they knew I was damaged, or that my injury would be targeted on the field. I convinced myself it was a privilege to have an invisible injury, and so I kept it hidden.
And of course, I got exposed at the place where all abilities come to be tested: the weight room. It was one thing to make accommodations for myself on the field, finding creative ways to save a shot if my shoulder wasn’t cooperating, but in the weight room there was nowhere to hide. I had to swallow my pride and do the one thing I hate to do: ask for help. I’m lucky to have had strength coaches who took the time to understand my injury and remained patient in making some tweaks to my program, but it was difficult fielding their questions and sticking out amongst my teammates. I had worked so hard to blend in, only for that work to be erased in the face of a barbell. There are days when pressing 10 lbs is the scariest part of my workout, and there are days where my body wants to keep going but my arm has to stop. These things eat at my confidence and poke holes in my self-image, especially in the athletic world, where your body is everything and your ability to compete is the number one priority.
"I know now that I can be capable and disabled, I can be athletic and impaired, and that I can achieve greatness within the limits my body has put on me."
What I lacked in shoulder mobility, I made up for in everything else. I fought to be the smartest in the class, the toughest athlete on the team, and the most valuable leader among my peers. I seized every opportunity with the abilities I did have so that I could forget the one I didn’t. I was looking to erase every doubt cast about me and every narrative that could have been written the day I was born. While I’m grateful to have this mindset instilled in me, I often wish I didn’t have to compensate for such an important part of my identity. I know now that I can be capable and disabled, I can be athletic and impaired, and that I can achieve greatness within the limits my body has put on me.
My injury is one that doesn’t change, doesn’t progress, and definitely does not go away. To be reminded of this every day is the biggest struggle, where the simplest tasks like putting my hair up or typing out an assignment are more challenging than they should be. It is physically uncomfortable to live my life, not even considering the strain my shoulder endures on the field. It is mentally draining to come to terms with my identity, too, since I don’t fit into any of the existing categories: I’m impaired, but my condition isn’t severe enough to be classified as disabled. I don’t go through the struggles of someone with a torn ACL or a mental health diagnosis. I don’t know whether to own my injury or to keep it hidden.
"I’m not successful despite the hand I was dealt, but I’m thriving because of it. "
What I do know is this: for anything that should have held me back, I have used it to propel me forward. There is nothing I can’t do within the confines of my limits. My body’s physical limitations have pushed me towards the mindset of an athlete who is limitless. I’m not successful despite the hand I was dealt, but I’m thriving because of it. My condition has shaped so much of my outlook on life, and how I treat others who may be battling their own hidden struggle. I might not fit into a box or a label, but I can be a face for the communities that need me and share my authentic self without fear of exclusion.
I used to wonder who Piper would have been without her injury, because I’m fortunate enough to never know. I’m lucky to have endured since day 1 of my life, to never know the kind of person she’d be without the struggle. All I know is who I am, and I wouldn’t trade this version of my life for anything.
- Piper Hampsch
Photo Credits: Duke Athletics and Piper Hampsch