By Valeria Saborio
This is my last blog and I wanted it to be a little different. The greatest gift I have received as an international student has been the wonderful people that I have met since I arrived here in the U.S. One of those special people is my friend Lisa Cummings. In a Zoom physics class of more than 200 students, I was blessed to be in the same group as Lisa. We always talk about the odds of being in the same group in such a large crowd and how thankful we are for our friendship. This Thanksgiving, I am especially grateful for her story and the gifts she has given me that go far beyond what’s tangible: Child-like faith, perseverance in the midst of enormous pain, and a love for her country that goes beyond measure. It is an honor to allow Lisa to share her story in her own words. Thank you, my dear friend, for never giving up on your dreams and for inspiring so many of us. I know you will be the best fighter pilot one day! So, here’s Lisa’s story...
"When I was 13 years old, I remember sitting in my world geography class one afternoon, repeatedly glancing at the clock, counting the seconds until we were dismissed to leave for the day. During the last few minutes, our teacher, Ms. Siemers, assigned us to write a poem about our dream. I immediately knew what I was going to write about, and after class ended, I bolted back home to write my poem. Almost 7 years later, I stumbled upon that forgotten assignment while cleaning out a pile of old papers. The poem was quite unoriginally titled, ‘I Have a Dream,’ and it was all about my life-long goal to become a fighter pilot in the world’s greatest Air Force.
I was 5 years old the first time I saw the Air Force Thunderbirds scream overhead, flying dangerously close together in perfect formation. I remember running around Mather Air Field with my best friend from kindergarten, bouncing from one aircraft display to another, admiring the beautiful and powerful machines that flew over. Something about that experience stuck with me, and the possibility of being one of those pilots was subtly nestled in my imagination.
As the years went by, my passion for flying and airplanes took a backseat. I was also an avid tennis player from the age of 5 years old and started figure skating at age 8. I loved tennis and figure skating as much as I loved aviation; I enjoyed the mental as well as the physical challenges that came with learning a highly skilled sport. From third grade to middle school, my parents made the decision to homeschool my sister and me. They decided that we would benefit more from individualized instruction from my mom and have more time to explore our passions for sports. If there is one thing my mother, who is from Nagoya, Japan, taught me, is discipline and the principle of Kaizen, translated to ‘continual improvement.’
Homeschool with my mother taught me to become a responsible individual, to complete my studies on time while balancing playing tennis and figure skating at a competitive level. She taught me the invaluable skill of perseverance and to always improve at whatever I attempt to do. However, as I grew older, I realized that I wanted to do something greater with my life. I remember my dad showing me a movie called, ‘The Right Stuff,’ and the scene where Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier in the bright orange Bell X-1 aircraft. It was that scene that brought me back to that life-changing experience I had at 5 years old at Mather Air Field. I decided I wanted to attend the United States Air Force Academy to become a fighter pilot.
After making that decision, I had to make quite a few drastic changes in my life. I decided to attend public high school, join the Air Force youth program called Civil Air Patrol, quit figure skating, and set my sights on the Air Force Academy admissions process at the age of 13 years old. It was tough transitioning from being homeschooled to public school; I didn’t know anyone when I started my freshman year. When I tried out for the tennis team, I met some of the nicest girls I could have ever hoped for. Our team was full of loving and welcoming people; I immediately felt at home in my new school. I had kind teachers, great friends, and grew a passion for leadership as I joined the student government organization and different student clubs. For the first few years of high school, I was thriving. I had my sights set on the Air Force Academy and practiced tennis practically every day in hopes of being recruited to play at the collegiate level there. I was also involved in the Civil Air Patrol, where I had my first glider flight and flight in a Cessna 172. I even attended an 8-day ‘boot camp’ in San Luis Obispo, California, and had a thrilling ride in a Blackhawk helicopter. I was hooked. I could not see myself doing anything else, but flying while serving the country I love as a career.
In my junior year, I started my applications to the Naval Academy, Air Force Academy, and Military Academy, writing essays and preparing to request a congressional nomination from the local congresswoman in my district. For reference, applying to service academies is a rigorous process that includes physical, academic, and character evaluations, as well as a nomination from a congressman, senator, or even the Vice President. I felt that the many years of hard work was going to pay off. Then, one March weekend before I had a tennis tournament my junior year, everything changed.
I had suffered minor injuries while I was figure skating, but nothing that caused any major derailments. One Saturday morning during tennis practice with my dad, I felt a strange pain in both my feet. At first, it felt like a pebble was stuck in my shoe beneath my heels, and initially, I ignored it. After practice, my dad and I stopped at Walmart to get some insoles, wondering if those would help. The next day I practiced with the insoles, felt some pain, but again, ignored it. The next morning, I could barely walk. It felt like someone was stabbing my heels with a sharp knife, and a splitting pain permeated through both of my feet. This was the start of my painful battle with atypical plantar fasciitis. The next 6 months were filled with visits to the doctor almost every week, physical therapy, icing, ultrasound treatments, MRIs, steroid shots, custom insoles, and little to no physical activity.
As my junior year ended and my senior year began, I was having trouble simply walking without pain. I couldn’t play tennis or participate in anything athletic; my life had suddenly been consumed with being able to walk without breaking down in tears. I bounced from doctor to doctor; I remember one telling me he didn’t know what else to try, as we had already gone through all the treatment options. As my ability to walk became less and less, and the pain grew more intense, I gave up on the Air Force Academy. I had little to no faith that I could ever run or move normally again, much less attend the Academy and fly fighter jets. Subsequently, I entered a dark period of my life.
On a whim, I decided to attend the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) at the end of my senior year. I had applied to other schools, but something about UNR stuck out to me. I felt very peaceful on campus, looking out at the mountains on the horizon and the blue skies, it was a welcome feeling after a turbulent year. Yet, the first semester was far from smooth and peaceful. I was on crutches for about the first 5 weeks of school since my left foot was in serious pain. I was in a major I hated, in a career path I thought would make me successful. My parents suggested I use a wheelchair since I was struggling to walk, but I refused. I thought that using a wheelchair would be giving up. I survived the semester academically, but mentally and physically, I was miserable. I had my first surgery on Christmas Eve with my current podiatrist, and initially, it went well. However, when I returned to campus with a walking boot on, I was in tremendous pain. I hadn’t had the proper time to heal, and consequently, my foot was severely swollen and purple. My parents decided to pull me out of school since I was mentally struggling to continue college; I remember crying on the benches in the financial aid office as the school processed my leave of absence application. I packed up my dorm room that day and left to go back home with my dad.
I entered a period of depression. The perfectionist mindset that had sustained me in high school was breaking me; I was convinced I was a failure, embarrassed that I had all these ambitious goals, and yet achieved none of them. Eventually, I decided that I couldn’t hobble around on crutches any longer, and my parents bought me a wheelchair. I struggled with this new reality. I struggled with slowly watching myself deteriorate physically; I felt that my identity as an athlete was forever gone. Then one day on YouTube, I stumbled upon a video of wheelchair tennis players. I was amazed at the athleticism and skill of these athletes. Their ability to push themselves at high speed around the court then hit the ball with tremendous power and accuracy baffled me. Initially, I was reluctant, but I decided to begin my journey playing wheelchair tennis.
The first couple of weeks, I nearly gave up on the sport. The amount of upper body strength it requires is tremendous, and I was so obsessed with the image of myself before my injury, that I spent more time lamenting on the court about my situation than actually trying to do my best. My dad, who has also been my coach for many years, gave me that necessary wake-up call. I remember him telling me that my story is sad, but it is time to wake up and make the most of things. The time for feeling sorry for myself was over, and I needed to continue on with my life.
I am forever thankful for that kick in the pants, and from that point on, I was determined to become the best wheelchair player I could be. I practiced almost every day and worked hard to improve my skills. I felt like an athlete again. I started playing in tournaments and was blessed with mentors that guided me as a new wheelchair user and wheelchair athlete. One memory is attending the US Open Wheelchair Tennis championship in St. Louis and making it to the finals of my division.
I was so thankful just to be out on a tennis court again! In my wheelchair, I could sprint to the ball and feel the wind in my face. I could go on long trips to the mall and go to the park with my friends without writhing in pain. The wheelchair gave me the freedom to be the Lisa I was before. Then, I hit another roadblock. At the end of 2019, the International Tennis Federation had implemented new rules for competing; I was no longer eligible to compete in wheelchair tennis because I didn’t meet the minimum level of disability. This news was crushing at first, but I was stronger than I was before. I needed to handle this reality, and move on with my life.
After that unplanned gap year, I decided to return to UNR in the spring of 2020 after my second surgery. The semester did not come without challenges as a wheelchair user, but I had switched my major to engineering, a field that I love and enjoy. I met incredible friends and began to steer myself towards my love for aviation again. I had decided that if I wasn’t meant to fly these beautiful aircraft, I could apply my passion in a different way by building and designing them. A change in mentality allowed me to succeed that semester; I realized that the most important things in life aren’t accolades or individual success, but the relationships you make with people and the experiences you go through. I believe with the help of God, I could see the beauty in the pain I went through. I could see myself maturing, becoming more thankful for life, and becoming a better person. Admittedly there are times where I am still bitter about the past, but I’ve learned over time to have faith that my story isn’t finished yet, and to do the best I can that day. That summer with a renewed perspective and hope, things started to change for the better.
I remember beginning to have less difficulty walking when I moved around my room with crutches. I was making little advancements in my ability to walk without pain. I started following my doctor’s treatments even more rigorously to improve the healing process. The surgeries I had were finally starting to show their positive results, and I began to walk more and more. By the end of the summer, I was able to even hit the tennis ball around for about 5 minutes at a slow pace. Although I still use a walking cane and occasionally my wheelchair still, I have made the most progress I have ever made with this injury. I recall breaking down in tears of joy in my dorm room after throwing the frisbee around with my friends on the quad. A year ago, I couldn’t imagine myself at this point of getting healthier and getting to move without pain.
It was a few months ago near my 20th birthday when I discovered that poem I wrote as a 13-year-old freshman in Ms. Siemer’s class. Instead of the feeling of sadness over my failed dream, I felt a stir inside. I was determined to again become a fighter pilot. For the first time, I felt an unshakeable faith that I could still accomplish this dream, and that perhaps all this time, this painful journey was the experience I needed to gain the necessary strength. I am just starting on this new chapter now, but I have the faith that if the desire was put in me to fly and serve my country, I will get that chance and opportunity in some way. I owe it to that 13-year-old version of myself to keep trying and to have that child-like faith.
I hope that others who have endured adversity can find the strength to keep chasing their dreams because life is too short and too beautiful not to pursue something you love deeply. However, when doing so, don’t forget the most important things in life — the relationships with your family and friends, the experiences you go through, and the people you meet. I am forever thankful for my painful journey; without it, there are so many incredible individuals that I would have never crossed paths with, individuals who truly changed my life. If I could tell anyone anything going through difficult times, I would say, have confidence that your story is far from over. After all, who wants to read a book or watch a movie about someone who has not endured any adversity? Have pride and faith in your unique journey, and go after what you love. I hope to see you chasing your dreams from the blue skies above.”
Valeria Saborio is from Costa Rica and is pursuing her Industrial and Systems Engineering degree at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada.