With her dark hair swept back into a ponytail, 14-year-old Michelle Kazuba warmed up with the East Valley Middle School track team on May 20. At 4 feet tall, Kazuba is the smallest teen on the team – but her competitive spirit is huge.
She not only competes in javelin and shot put for East Valley, she’s also a member of Team St. Luke’s, and has set records in shot, discus and javelin at last year’s National Junior Disability Championships in New Jersey.
Amazingly, Team St. Luke’s coach Teresa Skinner said when Kazuba joined the team, “She really didn’t want to be there. She didn’t see herself as an athlete.”
Kazuba has achondroplasia dwarfism, the most common of 200 types of dwarfism. When her mother, Sylvia Lundquist, broached the idea of joining Team St. Luke’s to her daughter, Kazuba was less than enthusiastic. “She didn’t want anything to do with it,” Lundquist said.
“I said ‘No way!’ ” Kazuba recalled, describing her initial involvement with Team St Luke’s as “Something my mom made me do. I’m pretty shy,” she added.
Skinner said kids with disabilities typically don’t envision themselves as athletes. “They have no reference point,” she said. “There’s no athletes on TV like them, or at their schools.”
Kazuba agreed. “I thought sports was something I couldn’t get into.” In addition to shyness, part of her reluctance stemmed from lack of experience. Early on, Skinner wanted her to try swimming. The problem? Kazuba didn’t know how to swim.
This former nonswimmer is now two seconds away from qualifying in the backstroke at the 2009 Can-Am Disability Championships, and swimming has become her favorite sport. “I learned really fast,” she said.
Her participation with Team St. Luke’s has been eye-opening. “I know what I can do,” she said. “I’ve become more confident – more independent.”
Skinner often sees this kind of transformation. “All kids have a competitive spirit, it’s just a matter of creating a place for them to compete,” she said.
For Kazuba, swimming lit that competitive fire, and she soon tackled other events. “Teresa Skinner really encourages Team St. Luke’s members to participate in school track events,” she said.
East Valley Middle School track coach Julie Scott also urged Kazuba to join the team.
“She (Kazuba) works hard in practice. She’s set personal records at the meets. Obviously, she has a disadvantage competing against normal-size girls,” Scott said.
But at the recent practice, Kazuba didn’t seem concerned about any disadvantage. Instead, she focused on her own efforts, as she hefted the 8-pound shot and sent it sailing with flawless form. Though her teammates threw farther, Kazuba doggedly retrieved the shot and concentrated on her technique.
While she’s continued to improve in track and field events, her true passion is swimming. When she needed more time in the water than St. Luke’s could provide, she joined Spokane Area Swimming. Coach Todd Marsh said, “I’ve never seen her come into practice without a smile on her face.” Calling her a “great asset to our team,” Marsh said Kazuba inspires her teammates. “They see how hard she works. She’s someone who doesn’t let any disability get her down.”
Her involvement in team sports has paved the way for many new friendships, and she’s gained an additional benefit. Marsh said, “We treat her just like we do everybody else.” That’s something Kazuba craves. “I’m just a normal kid,” she said. “I don’t need to be treated any differently.”
Lundquist is proud of the strides her daughter has made. “Her participation in sports has changed her whole outlook on herself,” she said. “She pretty much thinks nothing is impossible.”