June 21, 2013

‘Her disability is no disability’

7-year-old finds a way to excel at many sports

By Devin Golden

— If you don’t accept the truth about Lexi Lyon’s “little arm,” then she’ll tell you the made-up version.

“A shark bit it off.”

And if you don’t accept the truth about her athletic ability, even with just half a left arm, then she’ll most likely surprise you.

Born an otherwise-healthy child, one thing is noticeable about Lexi. One arm isn’t as long as the other. And one hand isn’t there at all.

But that hasn’t stopped the 7-year-old from finding her own way to excel on the softball field. And the basketball court. And even the playground monkey bars.

It doesn’t matter. If there’s a will, she finds a way.

“We don’t do any helping,” said Katie Lyon, Lexi’s mother. “... She is very strong willed. I figured life would be like that, me showing her how to do everything. But she’s always been able to figure out everything on her own. The softball thing, she figured it out. ... She just did it.”

And before the age when some kids are involved in even one sport, Lexi is finding her way in several, regardless of any limitations others may assume she has.

A few inches short

Katie Lyon said doctors believe Lexi’s birth defect was the result of Amniotic Band Syndrome. According to AmnioticBandSyndrome.com, this is a non-genetic, random occurrence that can happen during pregnancy when the fetus becomes entangled with string-like bands in the mother’s womb, restricting growth. The result depends on the area affected, but it can result in complete amputations, club feet, a cleft lip and palate or even miscarriage.

Lexi’s left arm got tangled. The arm goes to her elbow and a couple inches further, but no more. Yet, she’s still as active as any other 7-year-old, playing multiple sports and inventing her own methods around her physical constraint.

Lexi will be in the second grade at Westside Elementary School this fall. She and her mother already have plans for her to attend Northwest Whitfield High School when she reaches her teenage years. This past week, she participated in the Lady Bruins Basketball Camp, for those in kindergarten through ninth grade, for the second consecutive summer.

She can dribble, pass, shoot and defend, and do them all well.

“She won the free throw competition in her age group,” said Northwest Whitfield’s varsity girls basketball coach Greg Brown, who runs the camp. “Her skill level is just as good as all the other kids her age. She just has to do things a different way.”

Lexi’s shooting strategy is simple: Use her “little arm” — as her mother calls it — to prop the ball against her right hand and shoot. She can make shots from up to 8 feet away on an 8-foot basket.

Callie White, an 8-year-old Westside student about to enter the third grade, has been Lexi’s friend for two years and attended the basketball camp with her the last two summers. She said Lexi’s method was surprising.

“She can’t hold it the same way with her arm,” Callie said. “She has to hold it with one hand and has to put her other arm on the ball. I wasn’t expecting that. ... It looked hard for her.”

A few weeks before the camp, Lexi’s Westside Rockets softball team, part of the Whitfield County Recreation Department leagues, completed its season. Lexi played shortstop and first base.

“She can hit pretty good,” said Michael Holmes, Lexi’s softball coach and next-door neighbor. “Her disability is no disability.”

Not quite sure how that works?

“She holds the bat with one hand and uses her little arm to prop it up,” Katie said. “Then when she swings, it’s just with her one arm.”

Most players need two hands to field — one as the glove hand and one as the throwing hand. Lexi’s fielding method is different. Her right hand is her glove hand.

And her throwing hand.

After fielding the ball, she tucks the glove underneath her “little arm” and removes the ball from the glove to throw. It takes around one second after fielding the ball to throw it.

However, she often doesn’t need to beat opponents with her throws. She chases them down.

“I like tagging them out,” she said.

Lexi is quite the gifted runner. Katie Lyon said Lexi finished the Healthcare Classic 5K race in around 30 minutes. Lexi also competed in the Dalton Parks and Recreation Department track and field meet in April at Dalton High School. She won the 200-meter dash in the 7-8-year-old girls division with a time of 39.21 seconds, which would’ve finished second in the 9-10 girls group. She also won the 7-8 girls’ 800 race with a time of 3 minutes, 44 seconds, which would’ve finished second in the 9-10 and 11-12 girls divisions.

Her aunt is Shelley Rickett, who coached the Northwest girls track and field program this season and helped the past two years with the girls cross country team. In high school, Rickett won Class 5A state titles in cross country and the 3,200-meter run during her sophomore season. She graduated in 2005 and was a four-time recipient of The Daily Citizen’s Spring Female Athlete of the Year award.

Lexi apparently has the running gene.

“What she does best is run,” Holmes said. “She’s a runner. ... In our age group, there’s not a lot of throwing people out from that position (shortstop). She’s athletic and we use her there because she can run people down.”

Katie Lyon said Lexi’s ability to run — fast — is the reason she pushed Lexi to soccer. A sport that is all feet and no arms — aside from the goalkeeper — should be good for a child who runs well and has just one hand, Katie thought.

“I thought soccer would be the best thing on the face of the Earth for her,” she said. “I didn’t know how it would go with basketball for her. We play in the yard because we love basketball. But I didn’t know how it’d go with her and other kids. ... To me, she seemed like the second best player there for her age. That was another moment where parents were sitting there and surprised.

“I was surprised by that, and I’m not surprised too often anymore by her.”

Answering the question

When Lexi first started elementary school, Katie and Lexi often were asked questions. Not so much anymore.

And rarely is she picked on.

And never does it bother her.

“It happened (this year) once,” Lexi said. “This one little boy was with me in second grade, and every time I’d get out from PE he’d go, ‘Look at her. She only has one hand.’

“I didn’t really care ... because I’ve had people say it to me so many times it didn’t really bother me.”

Said her mother, “There were a lot of questions last year about it, but not this year. Plus, we started the school year off with my mom making a book about it. It’s kind of like a kids book. ... Growing up, that was the question we got from everyone on the playground: ‘What is wrong with her arm?’ That would drive her crazy after about a million times. It wasn’t that she cared about the question, but just answering it over and over. As she got older, there have been less and less questions.”

Katie Lyon said it’s easier to answer the question considering her mind was racing seven years ago about what could’ve happened to Lexi. Doctors told her there were complications, but kept it vague for a while. Finally, when they told her, it wasn’t so bad.

“The first thing I said was ‘What else?’” she said. “We’re not fighting for her life. We’re not going to be in and out of the hospital for however many years of her life. With her little arm, we’re not getting it back. We’ll just make the most of it.”

Katie Lyon said Lexi’s coaches, and most teammates, refuse to allow Lexi the opportunity to use her disability as an excuse. They are “good at accepting her for her.” And why not? She can pretty much do everything, and she doesn’t need any special help, either.

“There really haven’t been any limitations,” Katie Lyon said. “She had an infant prosthetic to help with crawling. At that point, she couldn’t say ‘No’ to it. She didn’t have any problems with that at all. When she was in preschool, we got her fitted for a myoelectric prosthetic. It’s top of the line. Basically, it has sensors inside and works off her muscles moving. So basically her brain controls her muscles moving and controls the opening and closing of the hand. I got that for her because I thought she may need it for small motor things at preschool and school. She hasn’t needed it, so she’s never really worn it.”

Some kids still look to Lexi’s “little arm” first before recognizing her athletic and motor skills. Some kids have a hard time believing the idea of a birth defect.

“Some kids just won’t let it go and they’ll just walk around staring at (her arm),” Katie Lyon said while laughing. “Especially the little ones. So some of them just won’t accept ‘I was born that way’ as an answer.

“So after saying ‘I was born that way’ a million times — which is her go-to phrase — she’ll just say ‘OK, a shark bit it off.’ And then they’ll (gasp).”


Creating whispers

Sometimes Lexi’s fielding and shooting routines cause whispers from onlookers who don’t know her. Even her friends inquire about how she will effectively compete.

“We’ve had some people who did know her, even friends, ask how Lexi will be able to play softball,” Katie Lyon said. “I guess that was strange because this little girl and Lexi have been friends and knows Lexi does everything else. So it still puts questions in people’s minds.

“Nobody really ever says anything. They just think it. There’s more saying after they see her do it. ... There’s more of a wow factor or not expecting her to do it.”

Lexi doesn’t make any excuses for herself. If anything, she is more independent than most. She even can do “girl things,” like putting her or other people’s hair in a pony tail.

“She is very much self-taught and self-disciplined in finding a way to make things work,” Brown said. “She doesn’t want people to talk about her handicap, so to speak. It’s not like I have experience teaching someone with one hand how to shoot. She takes the stuff we tell her and makes it work for her.”

Asked if her teammates view her any differently, Lexi gave a simple “No.” And that’s all she needed to say.

“To her, it is a simple ‘No,’” Katie Lyon said. “In first grade, they had a lemonade sale. It was a wonderful thing, but her friends and my parents were there. The way she has to hold the glass, it was only filling up half way. But my mom and dad said her friends just swooped in and got right behind her and grabbed the cup and filled it up. They don’t ever think twice. They don’t miss a beat when it comes to supporting her.”

Her friend Callie said she never thinks of Lexi’s disability anymore.

“Some people ignore it and some people don’t,” she said.


Her own way

What is one childhood activity that requires the use of hands as much as anything else? Climbing. What is one climbing exercise that elementary school students spend oodles of time at recess and after school doing? The monkey bars.

“Even an occupational therapist came up and said, ‘Wow, I can’t believe she has found her own way of climbing them,’” Katie Lyon said. “She can ride the bike and do similar things I thought would be harder because of balance. She ties her shoes. ... I thought those things would be delayed. We ran into three or four other people who have a little arm. We know those people are capable of doing those things, but I’m surprised at how quick they’ve happened.”

As with softball, basketball or anything else, Lexi usually has some foolproof system that allows her to be just like everyone else.