Life in the fast lane
A disability doesn’t slow her down
Ottumwa eighth grader Maria Horn likes sports. That’s apparent from her participation in track. Basketball. Hand-cycling. Rock climbing. Archery. Tennis. Just to name a few.
Maria stands out not just for her diversity in sports, but also that she has spina bifida.
Clearly, that hasn’t slowed her down.
If you ask Maria why she participates in sports, she will tell you it’s because she likes hanging out with friends.
What the eighth-grade Evans Middle School student won’t tell you is that sports is teaching her to advocate for herself, and giving her strength and confidence. That prospect seemed bleak, at best, just four years ago when Maria was in a Bulgarian orphanage.
Her mother, Katherine, puts it in perspective.
“Maria came home when she was 11 years old,” she said. “She never had the opportunity to really question why things were the way that they were. She would often go along with whatever the adult in charge said. I knew that she needed to find her voice and be able to state what she needed and what she wanted. As she has learned what to expect living here in the United States, she has begun to question things more.”
For Maria, sports is a gateway to empowerment.
“It is also giving her life skills that she needs for the future, teaching her about team work, setting personal goals and showing her how hard work can pay off,” her mother said.
On the track, Maria specializes in the 100-meter run, said her coach, Jennifer Burton. Using a lightweight, three-wheel chair, Maria propels herself along the track.
“Our hope is to help Maria get faster and stronger so that we may add the 200-meter in the future,” Burton, herself a former special education teacher, said. “Doing the 200-meter is a little more difficult for us all because it involves a curve where Maria would need to turn the chair while racing and we would need to ensure the wheel on her racing bike is set correctly.”
In that Maria is the only wheelchair competitor, it requires even more motivation than her team mates.
“We talk about how she can push herself and better her individual times,” Burton said. “She is quite the competitor and really does her best each and every time she is on the track.”
That determination and discipline extends into the classroom, said Gina Walter-Dunn, the Evans special education department head and instructional strategist.
“She is very determined to get things right,” Walter-Dunn said. “She wants to do her homework and be held to the same standards as everyone else. Teachers have said if everyone tried as hard as Maria, Ottumwa would be the best school district in the state.”
Walter-Dunn is truly amazed at Maria’s indomitable spirit.
“Some days after school, she will go off to practice archery,” she said. “Then it’s off for basketball practice. Then, she may even go rock climbing. Really, she makes me feel lazy!”
Katherine Horn is wholly impressed with the Ottumwa school district for their work with Maria.
“The athletic director and coaches have really included her in ways that others haven’t in the past,” she said. “That is something that Ottumwa has been amazing at.”