Tulia Jimenez-Vergara was at an orphanage holding a baby found in the garbage when Miguel first ran into her. He was only two years old and full of joy and energy, shouting “Look at me!” as he dashed around the room with ease — even though he had no legs.
Tulia was a young unmarried grad student who had returned to Columbia to visit her dying father. An uncle asked her to help bring food to the sisters of Hogar Luz y Vida, a Catholic orphanage. Run by Sister Valeriana Garcia, they only take the most difficult-to-place children. Tulia wanted to adopt a child, and here was a boy born without legs yet refusing to be set aside or slowed down.
She came back to America, began a job as a Spanish professor at the College of New Jersey and started working to bring him home. It took more than a year, and his transition to life in America with a new family wasn’t always smooth. Now 15, Miguel thinks he had difficulty adapting to his new home because he bonded with the nuns and missed the orphanage, the only home he remembered. He was also hyperactive and would eventually be diagnosed with ADHD, which he considers as much of a disability as his lack of legs. School was difficult, and the teachers weren’t helping. He couldn’t focus, didn’t get along with people and had trouble getting his work done.
All of this made Miguel and Tulia’s early years together a challenge. When he was six, however, he met members of the North Jersey Navigators, which runs programs to help disabled children engage in sports. For Miguel, sports would solve two problems: his ADHD, and the way the world perceived him.
Bound for the Paralympics
“Michael Phelps started swimming because his mom wanted him to calm down a little,” Miguel observes during an interview from his South Jersey home. “Sports gets all that energy out so you can concentrate. I didn’t want to train at first. My mother made me go to the first two track and field practices. When I trained, I was able to focus much more on my schoolwork. I was really mean. I ignored people. I was kind of a loner. Getting involved in sports changed all that.”
Not only did the training help focus his mind, he learned he was good at it. Track and field was his sport, but gradually he expanded into new areas. Today, he does the 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 meter, 5K, shot put, javelin, discus, swimming, archery and triathlons. He trains five days a week, two of them almost two hours away at the end of the state, with both the Navigators and the track and field team at Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.
“Miguel has matured to the point that he takes his training more serious, and he sees it as a necessity to reach his goals,” says John McKenna, athletic performance director for Notre Dame High School. “He gets no pampered treatment here, as he is pushed and challenged past his comfort zone every day. He does pull ups, push ups, sit ups, kettle bells. If Miguel keeps training out of his comfort zone, there are no limits to what he can achieve. I can see him in the Olympics someday.”
That’s not just the idle talk of a proud coach. Miguel doesn’t merely train or compete: he wins. He’s set several records and brought home 15 gold and four silver medals from the National Junior Disability Championships. Last summer he travelled to the Netherlands to compete in the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports World Junior Games, winning one gold, three silver and three bronze medals. He is now one of the top-ranked junior athletes in the United States.
“The key to training Miguel is because we don’t see him as handicapped, we see him as an athlete who is willing to work toward his dream,” says McKenna.
The Gift of Sports
As much as he enjoys traveling the world and winning medals, sport itself has been Miguel’s greatest gift. It wasn’t easy for him adapting to a new family, new country, new culture, new language, all while learning to deal with ADHD. His missing legs were not always his most serious challenge.
“We never treated him as a fragile thing,” recalls Tulia. It was less the disability than the other, less tangible difficulties. He had no father figure. He had trouble concentrating. He needed to develop good habits. He had to work on his social skills. Sports “gave him discipline and the structure he needed,” she says. The exercise worked off the extra energy, the teammates helped him learn to get along, and the coaches supplied a paternal influence.
“I liked seeing what I could do,” Miguel says. “There’s that thought that people with disabilities can’t achieve as much, and there’s that feeling of pity. People tried to help me out when I didn’t really need it, and I thought I’d show them I could do things without them helping me.”
The Church did its part to help Miguel as well. Not only did they provide his first home and help him find a new family, but Catholic education (first Incarnation St. James Elementary School in Ewing, NJ, and then Notre Dame High School) was there when the public schools failed him.
“When we were in crisis,” Tulia recalls, “the Church and the school was the one who from the very beginning accepted him. When I first went to Incarnation St. James, Sister said, ‘The door is alway open to you.’ They have helped him in every way they can, even helping him collect money for his trips to compete.”
For Miguel, the gift of sport is one he wants to give back to others, and he see himself becoming a kind of evangelist for the power of sports to help the disabled find new meaning and purpose in their lives, and he’s already begun. For the second year, he will be running a clinic at his high school to introduce the disabled to the potential of physical activities and sports.
“My goal in life is to raise awareness of sports,” he says. “Most people, if they’re born disabled or become disabled in an accident, feel bad about it. They need to move on and try something new, and sports can do that, when they see what they can do. And that goes for able-bodied people too. I want to be that coach for another child who thinks he’s not capable of doing something. I want to help.”
Thomas L. McDonald, @ThomasLMcDonald, is a writer and church historian.
The Making of a Champion