Beyond Inspiration Porn:

What is the Soul of an Athlete?

"To know how bad the odds were against me — I didn't care, I loved the game so much — whether I lost my arm, my leg, my eye, whatever, I was going to find a way to shoot hoops."

When I met Troy, I had no precedent for his athleticism. I also had no precedent for his singular ambition to be one of the first professional basketball players to play with one arm. My interview with him lasted for nearly two hours in his Oakland apartment. In those two hours, I learned more about the hidden psychology of what drives the best athletes from Troy, than I have gathered from a decade of interviewing Olympic athletes, Superbowl champions, and Grand Slam winners. What's the secret?
Despite every possible physical setback — cancer, a terminal diagnosis, an amputated left arm — Troy still chose basketball and his identity as a basketball player. He never relented to cancer's reign.

Before I asked my first question, Troy led by intuition.

"You can ask any amputee — we don't really notice we're missing an arm until someone says, ‘Hey you're missing one arm, what happened?' I can do everything just as well as I did with two arms. In some cases, I feel like I can do it better. I feel like I'm a better basketball player than when I had two arms. It just focuses you to work a lot harder, to perfect the craft, the things that you're pursuing. I feel like, you know, the word disabled kind of downplays what you're meant to be, as far as a true athlete."

Troy represents a growing number of athletes from around the world setting a new standard of elite-level performance. "Adaptive athletes" are challenging society's limited view of what it means to perform at the highest level. To Troy and his "adaptive athlete" teammates — a terrible phrase, by the way — they don't fuss over their disability. We, the able-bodied, do. And that's the issue.

Society tends to objectify people like Troy. To an able-bodied world, Troy's story can fall into the category of "inspiration-porn," a critical term coined by the late Stella Young. In her now-famous Ted Talk, Stella explains to an able-bodied audience how they objectify disability. She exposes the habit of glorifying people with a disability just because of their disability.

Stella is right. Despite Troy's Herculean effort to stay alive, he is nothing special just because he has one arm and plays basketball. I had to go beyond "objectifying" Troy's disability, while remaining true to his experience. I wish I could take credit for achieving that perfect balance by instinct, but, truth is, Troy guided the interview.

"I feel like when you...have an accident, a tragedy, you're given cancer, you're hit by a car, you lose a limb, you gonna have two choices: you're going to either let it define you or let it make you," he said about the choice he faced after his amputation "Now you can easily just give up — my cousin always tells me, I have every right to be the biggest — excuse my language — asshole in the world, I have every excuse to be a bum and not do anything, and that would be okay because I have one arm and I have cancer. So, I could literally sit on the couch all day and not do anything and no one can really say ‘oh, why don't you do anything?' because they can never have a comeback when I tell them what I have and what's going on in my life."

Troy made it clear to me. He doesn't want your pity. He wants to win. His story illuminates how an athlete thinks at the highest level.

When Troy was diagnosed with cancer, he was still in middle school. Cancer kept spreading throughout his body, limb by limb. His doctors counter-attacked the cancer with chemo, but they were always one step behind the cancer's offense. Even when the specialists agreed to amputate Troy's left arm to prevent the cancer from spreading, the persistent illness spread to his lungs. It's a tough story to hear.

I thought of the word "despair" because I had no idea how I would have managed through it all, but Troy adopted a different mindset. He chose to disidentify with his disability. And that act, which sounds deceptively simple, can reorder one's entire relationship with the world.

"I should be dead with what's going on inside my body because they have no cure for me," he said. "Even after I heard that I was like, okay, cool, I'm going to go shoot hoops now, and that's just how I've been. Once I found a love for the game of basketball, it just made me realize this is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life. If I'm not playing, I'll be coaching. If I'm not coaching, I'll be training. I will be involved with this game forever. I believe that's how I got to where I am today."

To understand Troy's athleticism is to understand how he adapted to the game without wishing he could go back to his able-bodied past. I kept asking myself how I would react if I went through Troy's battle, realizing I wouldn't have been as strong. Admitting this to myself is when I began to understand the major difference between me and Troy.

From my point of view, I saw a basketball player with one arm speaking about a seemingly unattainable dream. Truth is, I was still — unknowingly — identifying with my own hidden disabilities — the internal ones that no one sees. Who sets an example for disidentifying with what one believes to be wrong with him. Literature has portrayed the disabled as the exiled, as castaways because they look different. In reality, don't we all nurse our own personal, inner "disabilities?" Popular culture has borrowed an entire language of suffering from psychology, and the entire self-help industry depends on it. Until we stop identifying with our own hidden "disabilities", we will still see a world with disability.

Troy sees the world through the lens of his purpose because he takes responsibility for becoming a better basketball player. There are no excuses in Troy's world. From this perspective, Troy is more enabled with one arm than he was with two.
"If you lose your arm people are just going to assume you're never going to tie your shoe again, not knowing that there are 24 hours in a day, and you can use all the time you need to figure out how to tie your shoes with one hand."

By now, I could tell Troy was responding to my questions with a fire in his eyes. He must have sensed I was beginning to learn from his hard-earned wisdom. He talked about how he adapted his practices to meet his body's new needs. He tinkered, tweaked, and tailored his craft just like anyone called to a pursuit. The basketball court became his sanctuary and his laboratory. He finds joy in the details of perfecting his new game. People assume Troy is fragile because of his disability. He's not fragile, he tells me with a smile.

Troy's revelation boils down to this counter-intuitive idea. After the amputation, Troy tapped something within himself and it awoke a better basketball player. He had to lose a part of his freedom in order to gain access to another freedom. He does more with less. That is why Troy doesn't romanticize his past, able-bodied life. He has achieved so much in his new life.

"I feel like people want a quick, easy fix, and they don't like to work hard….people who are athletes, who are missing limbs, they take the time, figure it out, and get it done," he said, "I think that's hard for society to accept that there are people who are limited, so to speak, and that they're working harder than they are."

Toward the end of the interview, I asked Troy about the culture of adaptive sports. He described the fierce and highly competitive play during a game, but he also described what happens off the court. Troy described how easily players share their secrets about the little tweaks they make to their game, about any new tech to keep prosthetics snug, and about how the game is advancing for all athletes. He is effusive about his teammates because his "better" depends on everyone else getting better together. Powerful idea, right?

When Kobe snapped his achilles in front of millions, he still completed his two free throws before he was wheeled out. People still talk about that moment as one of his most memorable moments in the game. Troy taps that source every day. It is not what happens to you, it's what you do with what happens to you.

What I learned was so much more than a story about an ambitious basketball player who lost his arm when he was fifteen. Troy taught me about the true athlete mindset: don't identify with what you are not. He also taught me about how a functional community supports that outlook.

Most of us will face a disability, whether it is permanent or temporary, and it will try to rob us of our commitment to our pursuit. Perhaps we see people with disabilities because most of us are still finding our way in the world.

Before I turned off the camera, Troy left me with a final insight.

"People don't want to believe that somebody with one arm is working harder than them, so they're quick to judge and criticize them," he said, "So I feel like that's where it comes — where society is so quick to mislead other people — they don't believe that people who are exceptionally different can do more than they can."

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