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YMCA staffer with cerebral palsy has a moving story

TAMPA PALMS — Robyn Stawski takes a few awkward steps and her legs buckle. She falls to the ground on all fours.

C'mon, legs, you can do this. You don't control me. I control you.

That's what she keeps telling herself.

For the first time, the 32-year-old tries to walk an entire mile without a wheelchair or forearm crutches. Stawski, who has cerebral palsy, has never been on her own two feet for this distance without help.

Friends watch as Stawski, her movements awkward and uncoordinated, pushes forward.

No one wonders more than she does whether she'll make it to the end.

• • •

Stawski had come so far since that day years earlier when a school district official found her in a locker room equipment closet doing her homework.

She was an eighth-grader in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy and asthma. This, she said, was what she did during gym class.

"With my background in teaching students with special needs, I knew that was not appropriate," said Mary Lane, who oversaw the PE program for the Seminole County School District at the time. "Surely cerebral palsy would not prohibit someone from participating in physical activities."

Everyone at school was convinced that young Robyn was exempt from physical activity — everyone except Lane. She enrolled the girl in the district's physical education program for students with special needs.

Robyn was reluctant. She hated gym class; she hated sports.

Lane told her: "I can only hope that one day your biggest pet peeve in life will become your greatest passion."

• • •

Stawski lifts herself off the ground, struggling to finish the challenge that personal trainer Donna McCarthy has set before her on this day in August. Gloves protect her hands when she falls.

McCarthy checks her watch.

She is nervous that Stawski will injure herself and worries that they are in over their heads, but she doesn't let on.

"You can do this," McCarthy tells her. "You can do this."

• • •

Back in high school, Stawski had joined the swim team and worked as a peer tutor for students who had severe and profound physical and mental needs.

After graduating, she moved out of her family's Orlando home to Tampa, where she enrolled at the University of South Florida.

On a physical high, she began competing in Paralympic track and field events. She competed in sports that didn't require much walking or standing, such as shot put and discus throw. Mechanical engineering students at USF designed a special chair for Stawski to sit in while participating in the discus throw.

She first used the chair during the Paralympics International Challenge in Orlando in 2002 and received the silver medal in that event.

But Stawski's plans were derailed when she suffered medical setbacks. During a three-month stay at a rehabilitation hospital, she wanted to give up.

"I would lay there and feel like I was looking at this gigantic mountain," she said. "But I knew at the top of the mountain was just going to be awesome things, and I knew the Lord was going to give me strength to climb this mountain."

• • •

The mile walk seems like a mountain, unclimbable. Every 10 steps or so, her legs give out and she falls to her knees.

"Greater things are still to come," McCarthy says. "Get up. Keep going."

• • •

Stawski transferred from USF to Southeastern University, a Christian school in Lakeland, where she graduated in 2005 with a degree in public relations and journalism.

She had stopped training until three years ago, when she got a job with the New Tampa Family YMCA. There, she found motivation to rehabilitate her body and compete again.

Unlike her early years when she made excuses, she forged ahead with the Y's personal trainers, like McCarthy, who helped her build strength and improve coordination.

Her big comeback was the 2007 Parapan American Games in Rio de Janeiro. When she arrived there, she lay in her bed, hugged her discus and wept. The next day, she earned medals in the shot put and discus.

In 2008, she competed in the Beijing Paralympics in the shot put, discus and javelin. And last year, she competed in two super sprints, which are truncated versions of triathlons. They entailed a 100-yard swim, a 4-mile bike ride (she used a bike with hand pedals) and a 1-mile run, which she completed with the help of forearm crutches.

• • •

"By the grace of God, get up and walk," Stawski pleads with her legs. A light pole. Just make it to the light pole. After that, the sign. Just get up.

• • •

Today, Stawski lives independently in her own apartment.

There is no cure for cerebral palsy, which affects muscle tone and includes neurological disorders, but Stawski does not let it slow her down.

"My motivation is my faith, my goals, dreams, focus, passion, vision and knowing that nothing is impossible," she said. "And I can't begin to describe what the people at the Y have done for me."

When she's not behind the front desk at the YMCA, she's taking spin classes there or working with a personal trainer twice a week.

Her attitude inspires those around her.

"Her life truly is one of no excuses," said Pamela Dykes, a Y member who met Stawski the first day Dykes enrolled at the family gym.

"She's had to overcome so many obstacles, but she doesn't let them get in her way. If we all approached our lives like that, we would all have those same amazing returns. She really makes you feel like if she can do it, I can do it."

• • •

One hour and 43 minutes after she started, Stawski reaches the finish line, sweaty, sore and overcome with emotion. She arrives back at the YMCA entrance as a cheering crowd greets her.

Four months later, she is able to walk a mile in 24 minutes.

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or

YMCA staffer with cerebral palsy has a moving story 01/14/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:47pm]
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