I recently became the first woman handcyclist in Ironman history to officially finish the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. After crossing that finish line, I was overwhelmed with joy and excitement. Coming off of a failed attempt to complete this same event last year, it was a storybook triumph, and the realization of a dream that seemed almost impossible to achieve.
At that moment, I realized that the journey itself was so much bigger than me: it represented what was possible for other athletes - male and female, challenged or not – who are lacing up their shoes or putting on their racing gloves, training to reach their personal goals. This journey also represents my opportunity to share with the world that it is time to make polio a thing of the past.
I contracted polio as an infant in India, resulting in the paralysis of my legs. After three years in an orphanage, I was adopted by an American family. Growing in Spokane, Washington, I endured multiple surgeries which enabled me to walk with the assistance of long leg braces and crutches. As a child, I struggled with my disability, but always knew I wanted to do more than cheer from the sidelines. I made the decision to be active in my community, volunteering with the Ronald McDonald House in high school and DO-IT Disability in college. I interned with organizations ranging from the White House to IBM. I studied abroad in Spain, backpacked Europe by myself. Upon graduating I moved to NYC, pursued an MBA and now work at a global insurance company.
By the time I turned 28, it felt like I conquered almost all of the things that seemed impossible for a paralyzed orphan from India. There was only one thing missing: I was still on the sidelines when it came to athletics. Then a friend introduced me to Achilles International, an organization that enables people with disabilities to participate in sports. I was introduced to a whole community of challenged athletes doing things I never thought were possible.
I received my first hand-cycle from Achilles and a racing wheelchair from the Challenged Athletes Foundation, and I saw hope and possibility for me in sports. Not long after my first triathlon, it became clear that the girl who was on the sidelines was now a woman filled with the competitive fire of an endurance athlete.
It is this same determination that has now driven me to become an advocate for polio eradication. As I grow more confident in my career and athletics, I have begun to realize that I have a unique voice. Among my generation, I am one of the few individuals in the U.S. that are living with paralysis by polio today. I have the humbling knowledge that if I had not been adopted, I might not be alive today. I have an opportunity to help change lives by raising awareness of polio and the importance of eradication.
Today, we are closer than ever to eliminating polio everywhere in the world, with new cases down 99% since 1988. Since the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was started in 1988, more than 2.5 billion children have been immunized against polio and an estimated 5 million children, who otherwise would have been paralyzed like me, are walking.
One achievement I am most excited about is that India has eliminated polio. Almost everyone said that India couldn’t get rid of polio; it had too much to overcome. I’ve heard those words, too. But India’s now been polio-free for almost three years. Each year, more than 170 million Indian children under the age of 5 are vaccinated, requiring nearly a billion doses of polio vaccines.
The mission to eradicate polio by 2018 is, in some ways, like completing a triathlon. There is a tremendous amount of preparation and planning, and you face completely different challenges along the way. Looking at the size of the task, a lot of people would never try. But with the will to succeed, the goal is achievable. We’ve committed to polio eradication in the long run, and we must see it through to the finish line.