Playing with clubbed feet: My most valuable parents



Jennifer playing high school volleyball. Photos provided.

It was a Tuesday night in November, and we were running 20 laps around the gym—one for each serve we missed in volleyball practice. As usual, I was bringing up the rear—about to get lapped by Rachel our middle blocker and high school track star. My feet throbbed, and my thighs were beginning to cramp.

Neither of my coaches knew of my problem—I was born with talipes equinovarus, commonly known as clubfoot. The bones in my feet and ankles were deformed at birth. It took surgery, casts and years of physical therapy just to allow me to walk.

Yet here I was, trying to keep pace with the varsity team, too embarrassed to tell anyone how much it hurt. Coach Mallory blew her whistle, and I limped to a stop.

Outside, I found Mom waiting in her Honda minivan, listening to Tim McGraw. I dragged myself into the passenger seat, no longer able to fight the tears.

“Why are you crying?” she asked.

I buckled my seatbelt and pulled off my Nikes. “My feet hurt so bad,” I said. “I sucked today. I couldn’t even run laps.”

“Oh, honey, I’m really sorry,” she said. “But you can’t cry about that. You love volleyball. Even if you’re the worst, you know you wouldn’t quit.”

She was right. I loved this sport. Even if it hurt me every time I played, I’d still do it.

All those years when I was hobbling around in corrective shoes and my parents were stretching my feet every night at bedtime, my mother and father knew I would be challenged. But they refused to coddle me, and they wanted to make sure I didn’t expect others to either. Once I graduated from Velcro to shoelaces, they suggested I try something new—like a sport. I never thought I’d be an athlete, but, at the age of 9, egged on by some recess friends, I told my parents I wanted to try volleyball. They were delighted and took me to a sports store to pick up a white Wilson ball and a pair of kneepads.

She was right. I loved this sport. Even if it hurt me every time I played, I’d still do it.

As I practiced passing and serving, my parents treated me like any other aspiring athlete. Every game I’d find them in the bleachers, my mom cheering and my dad studying my performance. Afterwards, my dad would pull me aside, laugh with me at my mistakes, and tell me what to work on for next time. My mother, my personal cheerleader, was fairly sure I’d be playing for the U.S. in the London Olympics.

In eighth grade, Coach assigned me the most difficult role in volleyball: the setter’s position. As setter, I was part of every rally and had to cover a lot of the court. I was probably sprinting three miles every match. Some days the pain was so blistering I’d come home and collapse on my bed for the rest of the evening. Despite it all, my mom and dad maintained their outlook. “You can quit or keep going,” they would tell me. “Whatever you choose, we support you.”

As the pain got worse and the games more competitive, I sometimes came close to quitting. Then I could go home after school, put my feet up, and watch “The Office” like everyone else. Like any teenager, I sometimes forgot my parents’ wisdom and complained. When I was alone and I pulled off my ankle braces, I’d remember their words: they’d respect my decision as long as it was what I wanted. I realized I wasn’t playing for them. But they were with me through every finger jam and floor burn. Their actions proved their words.

Author Jennifer Wenzel with her parents at high school graduation. Jennifer overcame a severe disability to play high school volleyball, a sport she loved.

Parents wonder if teenagers listen. They do. I didn’t always tell my mom and dad I appreciated their support. But I did. I wish I had shown them just how much their words meant to me. The moments I cherish most are the ones where they pushed me to play my best, despite my feet pain. They openly believed in me. And I believed them.

Looking back now, I am grateful for my disability. It taught me I can overcome obstacles and try new things. I owe my perseverance to my parents who were always there beside me. They let me make mistakes. They didn’t shelter or coddle me. They let me acknowledge my challenges and let me choose not to use them as an excuse.

At my senior awards banquet, Coach handed out the plaques for Most Improved Player and Best Hitter. I sat through the ceremony without hearing my name. One award remained on the table.

“And, this year’s MVP,” Coach said, “Is Jenn.”

I didn’t hear the rest of the nice things he said about me. What I remember is my parents smiling as he handed me the plaque and how much they gushed over me as we drove home. They were my MVPs.

JENNIFER WENZEL is a freelance writer from California.


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