Written by Ajah Stallings

Throughout childhood, kids have the opportunity to play whatever sport they can dream of. Whether it be soccer, tennis, gymnastics, track, or anything else, the options were endless. For me, this was no different, I played soccer, ran the 1600-meter run in track, participated in cross country, and of course, played basketball. However, out of all the sports that I chose to participate in, none of them drew my interest quite like basketball did. The feeling of peace, excitement, and tranquility that it brought me was unmatched, and because of that I knew this was the sport I wanted to grow up playing. While this seems like your typical story of a kid finding love in a sport, my story was not that simple, and I’ll explain why.

I was born July 24, 2000 and I was a normal, healthy baby except for one thing: my right arm. During birth, the doctors ran into some complications and long story short the network of nerves in my shoulder region called the brachial plexus was ruptured. If you didn’t already know, the brachial plexus is a network of nerves that sends signals from your spinal cord to the shoulder, arm, and hand. This mishap did enough damage to completely shut off all the signals being sent to my right arm, in short: it was paralyzed. From birth to present day I have had three surgeries just on my right arm. My first was at age 3 where the doctors operated on my shoulder, then at age 7 on my elbow, and lastly, age 13 on top and bottom of my arm. All of these surgeries were in effort to give my arm strength and some range of motion, however, even now, my right arm is functioning at about 20% of what a normal arm could. For example, I cannot rotate palm up, cannot tuck it behind my back, cannot raise it above my head, cannot straighten it, cannot flatten my palm, and many other things. By far, this was the biggest obstacle that I have had to overcome in my life, but especially in sports.


I always joke with my family and friends and ask why would I pick a sport where I have to use both arms? Why wouldn’t I just pick soccer or track, you know, where the use of your arms aren’t super important? Or why did I even play sports at all? While all these questions were being asked jokingly, a piece of me always genuinely wondered why I chose to go down a path with challenges that I could never physically overcome. The uncertainty, and doubt about my talents on the court were always in my subconscious no matter how hard I tried to suppress those negative feelings. I used to always have a burning desire to just be normal, to have two functioning arms so I didn’t stand out so much from the other kids. My self-consciousness was my worst enemy and proved to be increasingly difficult throughout my childhood playing basketball. Either the bold kids would come up to me and wildly ask, “what’s wrong with that arm”, or even worse, I’d get cowardly and confused looks from kids and even some of their parents. However, as I started to mature and grow older, I was able to make some realizations that changed my previously negative mindset to one that was full of aspiration.

The simple shift in mindset that I was able to make changed the game for me tremendously, and it all stemmed from my success on the court. My freshman year of high school I tried out for the team and ended out starting varsity that whole year. We weren’t very good, and I only averaged about 5 points but the fact that I was able to compete with some of the best girls in the state made me realize that maybe I could work my way up to their level, despite my disability.


That summer, following the season, I was in the gym nonstop working on my game, trying to figure out ways to make my left arm strong enough to make up for what my right arm lacked. How could I manipulate the defense to the extent where I can play the game with just one arm effectively? Luckily, after that summer, I was able to develop a game style unique to me that helped me perform optimally against opponents. The following year, my game point average went up to about 11 points to per game and our team became tremendously better only losing about 6 games that season.


That’s when I started hearing my opponents coach yell “she can only go left”, or seeing my defenders force me to my right hand. This added fuel to the fire, and again the summer after that season I continued to perfect the little nuances that became key parts of my game. This hard work really paid off because my junior year of high school we were ranked #1 in the state, #2 in the country and we won the Marion county tournament for the first time in our program’s history. As for individual accomplishment I bumped up my scoring average to about 14 points per game, received team-based awards, and state recognition such as being a part of the junior all-stars, and many other things. I continued to work and ended my senior year averaging 15 points per game, got my 1,000 point ball, and continued to receive team, and state recognition. Mind you, during the entirety of my high school career I probably dribbled the ball with my right arm a total of 8 times or less, and no I am not exaggerating! While this was difficult, I was fortunate enough to play alongside some of the best players in the state and with the help of them I became the player I always longed to be, and accomplished things I thought I never could.


From the exposure I received playing AAU basketball and high school basketball at North Central I was able to earn 4 D1 scholarships. While this may not seem like much, this accomplishment was beyond my wildest dreams. I often think back to the kid I was who had no self-confidence, who never thought they’d be enough, and see how far I was able to come. While it may seem like I’m bragging on myself, I really wanted to write this article to show how no matter how hard things are or can get, hard work and perseverance always triumphs. The road to success is never easy and there will be numerous times where you get kicked down, doubted, and looked over. But staying true to yourself and trusting in your own ability is one of the most important traits an athlete can possess. My whole career of playing basketball there were so many people including my peers, high school coaches, and college coaches, who took one look at my right arm and disregarded my talent on the floor because they automatically assumed I would never be capable of competing collegiately. If I listened and succumbed to everyone else's opinion, I would not be a member of Purdue’s Women’s basketball team. My advice to anyone reading this is follow your own path relentlessly and never be delayed by people who do not believe in you or your goal.
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