TAMPA PALMS — As a young girl Robyn Stawski was a true lover of geography, but some countries like China were so far away they almost didn't seem real.
Today the mystery has turned to anticipation as Stawski prepares to leave for Beijing later this month as a member of the U.S. Track and Field team competing in the Paralympics.
"It may be thousands of miles away, but it's way closer than it's ever been before," she said.
Stawski, 30, of Tampa Palms was born with spastic diplegia cerebral palsy.
The most common form of the malady, spastic diplegia causes muscles to become highly tensed, thereby causing rigid, uncoordinated body movements especially in the arms and legs.
When she was in middle school, Stawski said she used her disability to sit out gym class, actually hiding in a closet and watching her classmates participate. Eventually a school administrator caught on.
"She told me, 'You can participate and you will participate,' " Stawski recalled.
And so began a deep awakening for Stawski, who realized she loved athletic activities.
"It was as if my biggest pet peeve became my biggest passion," she said.
With the help of a very dedicated coach, she became a voracious swimmer, competing for Lake Mary High School.
There, she was also introduced to the discus, shot put and javelin. That event took her to France for the world championship, where she won fourth place in the discus.
"It all developed this fire in me that couldn't be quenched," she said.
Although she left all sports for several years due to medical concerns, the spark from her earlier years was still very much alive two years ago when she walked in the New Tampa YMCA.
Once again she found coaches who took her under their wings, recognizing her attitude.
Within a few months she was back to throwing, back to competing, and eventually made it to the Para Pan American Championships held in Rio de Janeiro, where she scored gold and bronze.
"She's a phenomenal worker, and she's just willing to do whatever needs to be done," said Neal Covas, a trainer at the Y, and a personal coach with the U.S. Olympic Committee. "She can't do the typical exercises so we develop things as we go, and she just never says no."
When she's not training 10 hours a week for Beijing, Stawski is a welcome center representative at the Y and an adaptive sports coach for teen wheelchair power soccer and bocce.
She said it's her way of giving back to the community, and she believes her disability makes her an even better coach.
"The kids will come up and ask all of these random questions because they know I've been there and they know I understand them," she said. "It's a way for me to spread the passion and show them there's a place where they can excel."
The Paralympic games were first held in 1960 in Rome, just after the Olympic games. Since then thousands of disabled athletes have competed for the gold medal in a variety of sports that includes wheelchair basketball to fencing, sailing, power lifting and judo.
Although some Olympic rules have been designed to accommodate the athletes' disabilities, the competition itself is similarly intense.
As she prepares for Beijing, Stawski has made sure she has all of the essentials, including her field chair.
She uses the chair, given to her as a gift from the University of South Florida School of Rehabilitation Engineering, for improved balance while she throws.
"Yeah, I just pack it up, bring it to the plane, and they bring it back to me when we land," she said.
She has high hopes for herself in China. But whatever the outcome, Stawski said she's focused on the bigger picture.
"It's really about putting everyone to the test to go beyond what you ever thought was possible," she said. "In all ways, it's an opportunity for the whole world to come together to compete and still bridge the boundaries and the gaps we may have."
Contact Sheryl Kay at email@example.com or call (813) 230-8788.