Everyone is trying to keep up with Ella Rodriguez—including Eric Smith, a certified prosthetist at Shriners Hospital For Children in Sacramento. Rodriguez, a Christopher High sophomore, happens to be a world-ranked paralympian in the shot put, javelin, discus and nationally ranked in the 100- and 200-meter running events in her age group and classification. As Rodriguez continues to push the boundaries of what is possible, Smith has to stay ahead of the curve or risk Rodriguez not being able to realize her full potential.
“Ella is the No. 1 potential kid with us right now,” said Smith, who works with several kids and teenagers at Shriners. “With all of our kids at Shriners, it’s really fun to be able to explore their potential and not just explore it, but really spend time and money on it trying new things and see how far their motivation and physical abilities take them. Ella is our No. 1 athletically motivated kid with real Paralympics potential in several different (track and field) events.”
The 15-year-old Rodriguez is in Las Vegas this weekend serving as a standard bearer at the Shriners Hospital for Children Open, the sixth event as part of the PGA Tour’s wrap-around season. it’s a lofty honor, considering Rodriguez was one of only 22 patient ambassadors chosen throughout the country to represent the Shriners Hospital network.
“I love having the opportunity to give back because I’ve been changed by events like this,” Rodriguez said. “Being able to represent Shriners Hospital is a crazy huge honor. They’ve been with my family and I from the beginning.”
Literally. Rodriguez was 4 months old when she made her first visit to Shriners Hospital. She was born with Fibular Hemimelia, a congenital birth disorder resulting in one leg being shorter than the other. In Rodriguez’s case, she had a limb length discrepancy that resulted in a severely clubbed right foot. Due to the severity of her condition, Rodriguez was 9 months old when she had her right foot amputated.
“We went to a bunch of different doctors to try to fix it,” said Sue Rodriguez, Ella’s mom. “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.”
Things didn’t quite turn out the way Sue expected—but for the better. Her daughter was meant to live anything but a normal life, and that has been evident from an early age. Here’s how motivated and talented Rodriguez is. The 15 year old has four different prostheses—an everyday foot, one for dancing, a long distance running blade, and an all-around sprinting blade.
“It’s totally not normal,” Smith said. “Ella’s abilities are far beyond normal.”
An avid dancer, Rodriguez has a special prostheses that allows her to point her toe all the way down so she can perform a ballet maneuver. There’s an adjustable ankle that allows her to wear high heels and tap shoes, and this is her prostheses of choice to wear to high school dances. Rodriguez uses the long distance running blade mainly for P.E. class and other “minor” activities, and the all-around sprinting blade for her track and field competitions.
“The expansiveness and the variety of equipment Shriners give is crazy because it allows me to live life the best I can and allows me to specialize in certain things,” Rodriguez said. “Having a different prostheses for each activity helps in ways I can’t describe. I can’t say thanks enough.”
The prostheses are expensive—and given the hi-tech equipment Rodriguez uses, that’s no surprise—but Rodriguez is sponsored by the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which pays for the blades. Through Shriners, Smith designs the prostheses and fits Rodriguez for each one. Since Rodriguez has four different prostheses, it usually takes six to eight hours to complete the fitting.
“Eric Smith is so amazing,” said Rodriguez, who earned 2018 All-American high school honors in the discus from U.S. Paralympics Track and Field. “He was mainly the one helping me with the four legs and he did not throw a fit once even though he probably could’ve had. We have a really cool bond, and it’s super fun being around him because he likes to teach me things, too.”
The teaching goes both ways. Rodriguez has showed Smith a vast potential that seems to have no ceiling. It’s people like Rodriguez who push Smith to continually be at the top of his game. Since Rodriguez continues to develop, grow and get stronger and faster, Smith has to be precise and technical with the components of the socket designs so the equipment will keep Rodriguez comfortable in competition.
“I’m a perfectionist and always wanting the very best outcome for every single one of our patients, but to have Ella come in with such high potential, that just elevates the expectation of the prosthetic legs we’re making,” Smith said. “For me to really lean in and push the boundaries of technology for Ella, that’s when I’m in my element. I’m designing new ways to make the sockets, and combine that with the very top technology for me to order like these running blades is something I need to do just to try to keep up with Ella.
“If kids like Ella are pushing their potential into a sport, then we want to take away any hurdles that will hold them back in their sport or activity. So with Ella we got her into a specialized blade prostheses, but as she pushed into the Paralympic level where she’s setting new records for her age, at that point she doesn’t just need a specialized running blade—she needs the fastest spring blade made. Those components in the prostheses are allowing her to take advantage of her full potential.”
In addition to being a world-ranked track and field paralympian, Rodriguez is on Christopher High’s cheerleading team and is a straight-A student. Although Rodriguez grew up with a disability, she never let it prevent her from accomplishing her goals. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Rodriguez has a decent chance of competing in the Paralympic Games one day. None of this would’ve been possible without the care she received at Shriners Hospital, a place where she spent a decent chunk of her childhood getting fit and refit for prostheses. In addition to fitting Rodriguez in her prostheses, Shriners Hospital takes a holistic approach with their patients, nurturing their mind, body and soul.
“I wouldn’t be anywhere without them,” Rodriguez said. “Their staff is very accommodating, they help get us the equipment and they’re amazing to say the least. I feel like having a support system and knowing they care not only about you getting proper equipment, but how you’re using it is very important. A lot of my friends go to Shriners and we’ve been able to bond through our own unique experiences. It helps to be surrounded by a community that genuinely cares about you. I’m able to connect with other patients and we can help each other get through anything. There’s a homey aspect to Shriners, and I’m very grateful for that.”
Rodriguez found it somewhat appropriate that she’ll be a Shriners Hospital representative at a PGA Tour event. Even though Rodriguez doesn’t follow the Tour or play the sport, she did play for a brief period of time when she was 8 or 9, having been introduced to the sport by the renowned First Tee Program.
“I enjoyed the First Tee Program because it not only teaches you skills in golf, but it teaches you skills in life, like honesty, integrity, kindness, and overall responsibility,” she said.
Out of all the sports or activities Rodriguez has competed in, dancing has meant the most to her.
“It’s basically the foundation of almost everything I’m doing today,” she said. “I wouldn’t have nearly as much coordination or strength if I didn’t dance nine years prior to doing track and cheerleading.”
Rodriguez’s story will be shared with the Golf Channel, which will have all day coverage of the event starting Thursday and running through Sunday. Shriners Hospital will be put in the limelight, as will Rodriguez, who continues to amaze on and off the track. On Oct. 18 in San Diego, Rodriguez and Smith will be competing together in a relay triathlon in San Diego to raise funds for the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which helps people with physical challenges thrive by donating running blades, wheelchairs and bikes for sports competition and everyday activities.
“The CAF helps kids and adults pursue their athletic dreams where otherwise insurance companies wouldn’t pay for anything like that,” Smith said. “It’s going to be a super fun time with 100 people running around with prosthetics.”
Whether it’s the CAF or Shriners Hospital, Rodriguez is a great ambassador for athletes not only in adaptive sports, but the sports world in general.