Ella Rodriguez vividly remembers walking into a gymnasium at age 9 and watching a wheelchair basketball game. The moment forever changed her life.
“I saw how happy everyone looked, and I wanted to be like that,” said Rodriguez, an incoming Christopher High freshman. “I had never seen other athletes like me, and that completely changed my outlook. I saw how efficient they were playing a sport, and I wanted to get that efficient in whatever sport I played.”
Rodriguez, who was born with a congenital limb deficiency that led to the amputation of her right foot when she was 9 months old, has never backed down from a challenge. Rather than viewing her condition as a hindrance, the 14-year-old Rodriguez has developed an almost maniacal drive to achieve at a high level in the sporting arena and in the classroom.
As an eighth grader at Brownell Middle School last year, Rodriguez maintained straight A’s, served as ASB President and competed on the cross country and track and field teams. At Christopher High, she will be no less busy. Rodriguez has already begun cheerleading practice and will no doubt get involved in a number of different clubs on campus.
“I can’t wait for school to start,” she said.
Rodriguez hit the highest point of her burgeoning athletic career thus far when she competed in the Desert Challenge Games in Arizona in June. The event is the only one in North and Central America that is part of the World Para Athletics Grand Prix. A total of 400 athletes ages 6 to 75—all with physical or visual disabilities—from 16 different countries competed in swimming, air rifle, archery and track and field.
Rodriguez took home a pair of gold medals in the shot put and javelin throw and a bronze medal in the discus in the Desert Challenge Games, setting a personal-record (PR) in all three events. She is currently ranked No. 2 in the world in the javelin, No. 5 in the shot put and No. 6 in the discus in the 16-and-under classification.
“This was my first national track and field meet, and it gave me an opportunity to step up my game and compete against other athletes like me,” she said. “I’ll remember a lot of things, but the one that sticks out the most is when I did the discus. I was able to throw it really far, beat my personal-record and do it as my family cheered me on.”
In no particular order, Rodriguez counts cheerleading, wheelchair basketball and track and field as her favorite sports. Rodriguez has come on strong lately in wheelchair basketball, as she plays on the Berkeley-based Junior Road Warriors varsity team coached by Trooper Johnson.
Rodriguez met Johnson through the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program, which provides people with disabilities to play team sports.
“She’s going to be incredibly good down the road,” Johnson said. “She’s really good now, but she has the potential to be really good as she gets older.”
Although Rodriguez is physically talented, Johnson said it’s the intangibles Rodriguez possesses that make her a true difference-maker.
“What really stands out is her athletic ability and the way she uses that and her leadership skills,” Johnson said. “She makes others around her better, and she works hard. She’s one of those kids whose personality is really dynamic and kids are drawn toward her.”
Rodriguez’s mom, Sue, said her daughter’s charisma and personality is infectious in a truly positive way.
“I’m most proud of her for making friends everywhere she goes,” Sue said. “People are drawn to her and a lot of times they’re staring at her. They’re curious and that used to bother her, but now she smiles because she understands it’s one more person she can have an impact on. She has a gift in that people gravitate toward her.”
Knowing that, Rodriguez feels she has a responsibility to raise awareness and help change perception about people with physical challenges who play sports.
“I want to continue to stay positive and set a good example,” she said. “My mindset is no matter who you are, you can accomplish anything you put your mind to.”
Rodriguez feels blessed and fortunate for the life she’s lived, knowing she’s been surrounded by loving parents, great coaches like Johnson and terrific organizations like the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) and the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program. In addition to Johnson, Ella had effusive praise for Alberto Suarez, her throws coach. Having a coach like Johnson has been instrumental in Rodriguez’s development.
“Trooper has been a very positive influence on Ella,” Sue said. “He is in the Paralympic Hall of Fame, and he’s been through the whole experience. Having him as a mentor for Ella has been amazing.”
Rodriguez has a goal to make the Paralympic Games, the major international event that features athletes with a wide range of disabilities.
“It would be empowering and a dream to make it,” she said.
Rodriguez was born with Fibular Hemimelia, which is essentially a limb length discrepancy that resulted in a severely clubbed right foot.
“We went to a bunch of different doctors to try to fix it,” Sue said. “Finally, after three opinions we decided the best thing was to amputate her foot to give her the best chance of living a normal life.”
Rodriguez has never viewed her condition as a deterrent from reaching her goals. A challenge, yes. An obstacle? Not a chance. Has her journey been easy? Of course not. However, Rodriguez’s positive outlook and strong mindset have allowed her to shatter any mental barriers and continually break through challenges thrown her way.
“When I was 9 I first realized I was quote-unquote the only one of my kind,” she said. “I got down on myself and discouraged for being the only one. That year I just wanted a friend to share my thoughts with and have someone who can relate to it.”
Through the CAF, Rodriguez was able to meet an entire community of friends in her same situation. Having a sense of community has been empowering for Rodriguez, who noted the strong bond and camaraderie the Road Warriors have as the reasons why she makes the long trip from Gilroy to Berkeley every Saturday.
“Getting to see and bond with my teammates makes it worth it,” she said. “Doing drills and playing with them is something I wouldn’t trade anything for.”
Sue is particularly proud of Ella becoming comfortable to public exposure.
“She went from hiding behind me and hiding her (prosthetic) leg to wearing a blade and being a proud amputee and challenge athlete,” Sue said.
Sue and her husband Mike have been with Ella every step of the way, helping Ella forge a strong identity. Ella has already gained a circle of friends at Christopher High from making the cheerleading team. She’ll compete in track and field next spring, ready to turn heads with strong throws of the discus, shot put and javelin. Ella might have lost a part of her leg at an early age, but none of her spirit.
“She has a great heart,” Sue said.
It shows everyday.