When Nicolai “Nico” Calabria was born, his mother phoned her sister. Excitedly, she told the new aunt about the baby’s blond curls and blue eyes, that he weighed 6 pounds 7 ounces. Then she added, “He only has one leg.”
His parent’s refusal to make that missing leg the primary focus of Nico’s existence began on the day he was born and has continued ever since.
He was initially fitted with a prosthetic limb but, because he was missing not just a leg but a hip as well, it was ungainly and uncomfortable. Finally, at 6, Nico tossed aside the prosthesis and began using forearm crutches. The difference was so dramatic that his parents called them his “wings.”
Nico’s father and older brother played soccer so it was no surprise that he began chasing a ball as a toddler and never stopped. He was always encouraged to find creative ways to perform activities that traditionally required two legs. Today, he participates in everything from ice skating to mountain climbing to gymnastics. One of the few sports that eludes him is hockey, since he can’t maneuver both crutches and a stick.
Nico, his brother and younger sister were each encouraged to embark on a coming-of-age adventure. At 13, they could choose to go anywhere in the world , not for a vacation, but for an experience to mark the juncture between childhood and young adulthood. The journey had to require determination and courage. His brother went cave diving in Belize. His sister taught English and Math in rural India. Nico, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. He was the first person to ever make the ascent on crutches.
He combined his adventure with a fundraiser to benefit the Free Wheelchair Mission, a nonprofit that creates affordable wheelchairs from resin lawn furniture and mountain bike tires for distribution in poverty-stricken areas of the world. Nico raised more than $100,000 for the charity.
In high school, he was a star wrestler, placing third in the state (Massachusetts) his junior year. He played soccer as well and in his senior year a video of his outstanding performance in a varsity match went viral. It has been viewed over 1.7 million times. It caught the attention of the Coca-Cola Co. Last September, Nico was featured in a Powerade ad campaign for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The slogan is “There’s power in every game.”
It was this commercial that Camp Coleman director Bobby Harris viewed when he was gathering ideas for his Shabbat message to his campers. The camp, located north of Cleveland on 189 bucolic acres, is operated by the Union for Reform Judaism and host to 450 campers per session. Crafting a message that is relevant to third-graders up through high school seniors is always a challenge. Bobby thought in light of the current World Cup competitions, a soccer motif might be just the ticket.
He was so taken by Nico’s Powerade commercial that he showed it to the campers. They, in turn, were intrigued and asked if there was any way they might be able to Skype with him. Bobby made a few phone calls and, long story short, Nico was at Camp Coleman on Wednesday.
He spent time with each of the age groups of campers, telling his story and answering questions. A big concern was about whether or not he can drive (he can) and if he was ever teased or bullied. He said he was sometimes teased as a small child but athletics is a great equalizer and as his abilities grew, the taunting stopped.
There was high excitement as kids crowded around for autographs and pictures. Each group had the opportunity to spend time with Nico on the soccer field. Our daughter Rachel, who works as a programmer with 15-year olds observed wryly, “My girls haven’t been the least bit interested in soccer ... until today.”
Nico’s only 19. He’s taken the year following his high school graduation to speak to groups like the Coleman kids. He spent time in Vancouver as an intern with SideStixs, the company that manufactures his crutches. He beta tests their products and there’s even a phrase, “Nico-proofed,” for crutches that can withstand the most grueling of workouts. He’s a member of the U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team.
In the fall he’ll start his freshman year at Colorado College where he plans to major in secondary education.
Given his long list of accomplishments, it’s no wonder Nico is not fond of the label “disability.” He said, “The definition of ‘disabled’ is basically a long list of synonyms that don’t describe me ... like ‘crippled’ and ‘weak.’” Not to mention “infirmity,” “defect,” “abnormality” and “affliction.”
Instead, he refers to himself as “differently abled.” It’s a term this remarkable young man says highlights the differences in what people are able to do without focusing on what they can’t do. It’s an attitude that started in the delivery room and continues to serve him well.
Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville businesswoman. Her column appears biweekly on Fridays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.