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Triumph through remarkable trial — story of a one-armed Catholic athlete

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Valeria Tkacik playing lacrosse for Ave Maria University. (Photo courtesy of Sports Up Today)
Valeria Tkacik playing lacrosse for Ave Maria University. (Photo courtesy of Sports Up Today)

By Alisa Flickinger SportsUp Today via Catholic News Agency

Remembering the words spoken by then-five year-old Valeria Tkacik still gives her mother, Anne, goose bumps.

“I turned around to look at her, and she was looking at me and smiling, and I’ll never forget that day. She said, ‘Mommy, I was born to make people happy.’ I said to her, ‘I know you will.’ I truly believe she was getting a message from the angels right then. And from all her achievements, I know this to be true.”

These days, Tkacik is a standout lacrosse player for Ave Maria University in Florida. By all accounts, she is a leader on and off the field.

Tkacik was named to the National Women’s Lacrosse League South Regional Team and is considered a talented athlete who loves playing lacrosse, basketball, golf, track, soccer and flag football.

A good student in the classroom, Tkacik was also accepted as a Mother Teresa Scholar at Ave Maria. She has contributed service time for charity work, including a mission trip to Harlem, N.Y., where she served the poor and homeless. Tkacik recently donated 12 inches of her hair to Art of Wigs (Texas) to help cancer patients. As a freshman, she served as a representative on Ave Maria’s Student Government. For her sophomore year, she will serve on the Student Activities Board and was selected for Ave Maria’s Media Internship Program.

And if those achievements aren’t enough, Tkacik is also a motivational speaker, helping patients who are struggling with the loss of limbs and providing them encouragement. The reason? Tkacik can relate to their story.

You see, what makes Tkacik’s life especially inspiring is that she achieves so much with only one arm.

Tkacik was adopted from Russia at 18 months old. Her parents say they were meant to be a family right from the start. In fact, Tkacik came home nine months from when they first saw her picture.

“We look at Valeria as we are blessed,” says her mother, clearly proud. “It was the right direction to go in our lives. We always look back and think, she wasn’t born to us but it was perfect harmony between the three of us. You’re either meant for adoption or you’re not. It’s given to you by God.”

Tkacik was born with a condition called congenital shoulder disarticulation, meaning she has no left arm. Workers at the children’s home where she was born said the condition was due to complications from the kidney medication her birth mother was taking during her pregnancy.

But being born with only one arm hasn’t stopped Tkacik from living a life more active than most.

Tkacik’s parents decided early on that words like “handicapped” and “disability” would not be part of their home vocabulary. “We knew with her situation that we wanted to make sure Valeria had the confidence needed to do the things she wants to do,” says her father, John. “Valeria knew she had to work harder than others and she did, that’s the kind of girl she is. Valeria has a lot of self-confidence and we can’t hold her back.”

Tkacik thrived on that support.

“My parents always believed that they would never set any limitations on me,” she says. “They always encouraged me to do my best.  My parents have given me everything.”

From the time Tkacik was very young, she loved playing with toy horses, and one day, she asked to try horseback riding.

John says, “She was four when she started ‘pony camp’ and I remember she was in a riding show her first year. That smile on her face just stole the judge’s hearts. You can never look to Valeria to see which team is losing or winning because she’s always smiling. Valeria enjoys everything she does, she enjoys life.”

Tkacik went on to take five years of dance classes including hip hop and tap dancing, played the trumpet in elementary school and was in the school’s Drama Club. She also got involved in sports, which she says helped build her confidence.

“Growing up as a little girl, I never saw my life as any different and I don’t think my friends did either,” she says.

In fact, her parents called Tkacik the “Pied Piper” of their neighborhood as a child because of her ability to attract new friends. It’s those friends and her community which have lent her support throughout the years.

Still, Tkacik says people are often curious about how she’s able to handle life with one arm.

“People always asked me growing up how I am able to tie my shoes, how do I put my hair up in a pony tail or how I am able to play lacrosse,” she said. “I just say that I just do it. Even though I only have one arm, God has given me so many other beautiful gifts. It’s been a real honor and blessing to please the Lord with all the events and activities I’ve been doing and I think He is pleased with how I handled my situation growing up.”

It didn’t take long for Tkacik’s athletic talents to progress from her first game in 4th grade basketball to some lofty achievements on her 8th grade team. That was the year she was named to two all-tournament teams and won a 3-point contest. She led her team in scoring, assists and blocked shots – so strong defensively that she was the team’s center.

As a junior in high school, Tkacik played an important role during her basketball team’s championship season. She also played the position of defender as a lacrosse player for her high school team; a sport that she had not played until her sophomore year. “I loved guarding the cage,” she said. “At Ave Maria, I also got to play mid-field and absolutely loved it.” Tkacik’s quickness and speed allow her to be a diverse player on the field.

Tkacik said she always knew that God had a plan for her and the entire Tkacik family points to her strong faith as the reason for her success.

“She learned her Catholic faith attending Catholic schools but also living in the faith at home. We would say rosaries at home together. She would remind us it was almost time to pray. The feeling you get from that as a parent wants to make you do it that much more,” her mother reflected.

Those teachings have served her well as a young adult now living away at college. She frequently attends Mass at her university and spends time in the Adoration Chapel.

“(People) always ask me how I am able to do what I do. They say it is something that they could never do,” she said. “It’s a crutch that God gives certain people that He thinks can overcome it and I think I am the right person to handle this.”

“God led my parents to Russia to come pick me up,” she says. “I always had joy in my heart and I always want to give back to God because without Him, I don’t know where I would be.”

Tkacik, a political science major, said she would love to get into politics in the future as she also completed an internship with U.S. Senator Rob Portman in Washington, DC.

“I just think it’s fascinating,” she said. She also an interest in attending law school following her undergraduate studies and is also considering pursuing a career in the media.

Ultimately, Tkacik said she just wants to live the life she’s been called to live.

“Actions speak louder than words and I just love my life,” she said. “My goal is to continue to live a Christ-like life.”

Diane Xavier contributed to this story

Posted Oct. 8, 2015

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