“People ask me all the time, 'If you could take a magic pill one day and be able to walk again, would you?' You know, still my answer would be no because this is who I am, this is who I’m supposed to be and I truly believe that.”
Kaitlyn Verfuerth plays 2 different sports, has been to the Paralympics 3 times, and has 4 medals to her name. During our talk, she so nonchalantly threw out, "So now that I’m not really playing too much tennis I started kayaking and I'm trying to make the Tokyo 2020 team for the Paralympics, but I don't know I'm pretty new, it might not be for another four years," which made me laugh that she could just be so relaxed about picking up a brand new sport and going to the Paralympics. Read below to learn about her views on success and what has helped her on her own journey.
Kaitlyn on how she views her disability:
“I played able-bodied, regular players in high school, so that’s how I got my introduction into tennis, which led me to become a 3 time Paralympian in wheelchair tennis. I’ve competed in Athens and Beijing and Rio a couple years ago. I have 2 gold medals, a silver, and a bronze. Tennis has taken me all over the world and given me opportunities that I would have never had otherwise if that had never happened to me, so it is kind of like a blessing in disguise. At least that’s how I look at my whole accident and everything that happened to me, and it’s brought me to meet amazing people all over the world, and I have friends all over the place, and it’s just unbelievable. Whenever people ask me how I got hurt, and then I’ll tell them the story, and then they’ll say like 'Oh, I feel so bad for you', but man, I’m like, 'Please don’t, I am the luckiest person I feel because I’ve had all these great opportunities,' and to me opportunities and experiences definitely outweigh everything that’s happened, so I’m very thankful for that.”
One of Kaitlyn’s biggest strengths I believe is how she handles herself in situations when people doubt her. She is fantastic at responding to people who are coming from an able-bodied perspective with responses that are honest about her own perspective, but in the most gracious and nice way. That’s a skill.
Kaitlyn on her biggest failure:
“Back in 2012 I was training for the London Paralympic games and ...during that time I was struggling a lot with my acne on my face and on my back....So I was taking Accutane and another prescription drug that were both banned on the list and I really didn’t know a ton about. The U.S. told me about drug testing, but there wasn’t a ton of information out there and other countries were way more far along than we were. So I was playing in a tournament and I got drug tested and of course I showed up positive for this banned substance and pretty much got kicked. It was literally the summer before London. So if you get drug tested and you become positive, your biggest offense, you’d be banned 2 years from the sport....I was so mad at myself, I was mad that I even got myself in this situation. I was so mad at the U.S. and the coaches because I felt like there really wasn’t that communication and I felt like there was lack of support, you know....I quit playing tennis for five years actually, maybe four years. I went back to my first sport, which was basketball. I was like 'screw tennis' if they’re going to treat me like this. So I actually made the U.S. team to play wheelchair basketball, even though I had a banned substance, and I told the coaches what happened. Long story short, it went to sport court (there’s a real sport court) where I was able to go up against these judges and present my case. And I gave them what happened and so long story short I only got banned for six months. But I was so mad at the sport, just the way everything went down that I kinda quit and I played wheelchair basketball and just tried to get my mind somewhere else....So I guess where I’m going with this story is because something bad happens or you have a huge failure it doesn’t mean that everything ends there, you know. I had another opportunity that got me back into tennis and I was able to make new connections with people that all thought that I was this big drug user, that I was cheating the sport. And now everybody knows that it was an accident and it was just a prescription drug. Everything happens for a reason, I totally believe that. I’ve learned my lesson and now I’m a spokesperson for wheelchair tennis...and [I’m] just being an advocate for the athletes here in the U.S. about how important it is to make sure you know what medications you’re on and you talk to your doctor about what you’re on so they know and they make sure none of those are banned substances. So it opened up another opportunity for me to become an advocate for it and it also got me back into tennis.”
Failure is inevitable in achieving success. However, Kaitlyn didn’t immediately bounce back. Everyone thinks you need to immediately bounce back from something like this, but that doesn’t always happen. It’s your own journey, you have to figure out what’s right for you. Kaitlyn decided to go to basketball instead and didn’t go back to tennis for years. That’s a long time! But she figured out what worked for her to recover from this, and then found some more opportunities, including being an advocate and educating other athletes.
Kaitlyn on her mindset:
“We didn’t have a lot. My mom was raising us, three kids, working her three jobs, and so even though we had a lot of challenges, my mom would always be like, 'Bring those challenges on,' like 'We can do it, we can get through anything,' so I always felt like I had that kind of in my head. My mom would always say, 'We can get through this,' so in my head I’m always like, 'I can do this, I can get through this, it doesn’t matter what it is, I’ll figure it out."
One view on confidence defines it not as knowing the answer to everything right away, rather confidence is knowing you have the ability to figure things out when you don’t know the answer. Here is a perfect example of Kaitlyn verbalizing this message to herself. I believe this simple concept or belief is a huge aspect of being able to succeed, because you are always going to hit snags or bumps in the road. If you meet them with the confidence that you can figure it out, then you can move past it and get where you want to go.
Kaitlyn on retiring as an athlete:
“It’s weird because you’ve been going for so many years and knowing that you have a schedule and a routine every day. This is what you do. And then all of a sudden it just kinda stops. And then you’re just like, 'Woah, now what?' and that’s really scary and it causes a lot of anxiety. Since I’ve taken a back seat, every once in a while I’ll have those anxious moments where I’m like 'Ah man, maybe I should just go back and play because that’s what I know how to do.' It can be scary, like when you graduated from college and then finding that job and working, you know. It’s kinda scary when you’re in that limbo so even though I feel like it’s gotten a lot better the last few years, there’s still challenges that come up.”
I like this insight Kaitlyn gives us into an athletes life, in concerns to retiring and transitioning out of an athlete’s life. I like how she talks about that voice of resistance in her head the one that says “maybe I should go back and play because that’s what I know how to do,” but she doesn’t let it make decisions for her. She recognizes that voice, but doesn’t let it take over the control of her life. She’s still in control.
Kaitlyn on coaching able-bodied tennis players:
"I’m now just a tennis professional teaching. It’s been a whole other side of the sport which has been really exciting to see how it all came together. And it’s also been kinda eye-opening, because all the people I teach are able-bodied. I don’t teach anybody in a wheelchair tennis. So it’s been kinda eye opening to them and to me, because a lot of people don’t know about wheelchair tennis. They don’t know that you can compete in a wheelchair. And of course when people see me, like when I worked out at Forest Highlands this summer, once they’d sign up for a lesson and they’d know it was me, they’d be like, 'Wait a minute, she’s in a wheelchair, how’s she gonna teach me tennis?' So that whole experience was just an eye opener because I think maybe in my little world, I assumed people knew, and then I just never thought about it, being an able-bodied person, taking a tennis lesson from a person in a wheelchair. You’re definitely probably thinking like, 'Man, how is she gonna…she’s not even…' You know you just look at me and you’re like, 'How is she gonna teach me tennis?' So I had to really prove myself a lot this summer to a lot of our members, but once everybody saw what I was capable of and how good of a tennis player I was, everybody was wanting to take lessons from me so it was pretty awesome. It was a positive experience."
I laughed when Kaitlyn told me this story, because knowing Kaitlyn and how high level of a tennis player she is, I can’t imagine playing tennis against her. She’d kick my butt! And yet, she had people doubting her playing ability because she uses a wheelchair. Kaitlyn has now challenged the assumptions of a whole group of tennis players that she taught. But it amazes me that at the high level she’s at, people still doubt her so much. Kaitlyn really handled this situation with grace and just proved her worth.
Kaitlyn on asking for and receiving help:
"It took me a really long time in my life to be okay with myself and to allow myself to ask for help because being in a chair, you know you’re always looked at differently, and people are always assuming that you can’t do something. So in my mind I wanted to be always proving people wrong and showing them that just because I’m in a wheelchair, that doesn’t matter, I can still do anything and everything that I want to do. I just might have to do it in a different way. And so it really wasn’t until I met Greg, my partner, that I actually was okay with letting somebody help me. Like I would never ever let anybody push me, or push me up a hill or help me in any way. I’d always say no until Greg came into my life and he was helping me when we first started dating. He was helping me up a hill and I was about to say, 'Woah,' but then I was like, 'Wait a minute, I really like this person and I don’t want, you know, I don’t want to come off as...' I don’t know, I should be okay with help, especially from somebody that I love and care about. So I zipped my mouth and I was just like, 'Okay I’m just gonna let this happen.' And then him getting to know me, he was always like, 'You just need to be a little more open about asking for help, it’s okay,' and just accepting that a little bit more for me, I think that really has...I mean we all need help. It’s okay for you to ask for help, it doesn’t matter if you have a disability or not."
One of my absolute favorite parts of this interview. Seriously. It’s such a good topic in both worlds of disability and success. In the disability world people have been oppressed by others doing things for them in the spirit of "helping." And yet, in the success world, a hot topic is learning to ask for help because highly successful people ask for help a lot. So this topic is an interesting pull between two different worlds.
I want to hear from you. How do you personally juggle asking for and receiving help? Is there an area of your life in which you should ask for more help or an area in which you should accept less help? Leave your answer in the comments below.