DENISE SCHINDLER: ACCEPTANCE STARTS FROM WITHIN
Imperfect? So what. Paralympic cyclist Denise Schindler says that if you make peace with yourself, you can do whatever you dare to do.
Growing up as a disabled kid, you feel anything but perfect.
With the honey-colored boards as a backdrop, Denise shares her story – from self-conscious girl to three-time World Champion. “I’MPERFECT exactly represents what I’ve been through on my journey. Being disabled and growing up as a disabled kid, you are always – or you feel – anything but perfect. And you don’t fit in and you don’t feel confident and you try to hide everything.”
Sport helped, a lot. She adds: “It was a long journey until I started to embrace myself the way I am… sport helped me on this journey because it made me self-confident. Everyone has imperfections. But starting to love them is the key to being powerful in your life. And then you also have your life in your hands, actually.”Every gradual transformation has a few ‘freeze-frame’ moments. Denise says self-acceptance took time but one defining moment changed everything. On a mountain bike race through the Alps, she decided to stop wearing long trousers to hide her prosthetic leg. “This was really a game-changer. This was freeing myself from the restrictions I made for myself. Because no one else was asking me to wear long trousers.” She adds: “This is so important to realize: most of the time, the restriction, the shaming, comes from yourself.”
Everyone has imperfections. But starting to love them is the key to being powerful in your life. And then you also have your life in your hands, actually.
Denise knows that one of the first things you notice about her is her prosthetic leg. She has several, and today she’s wearing the one she uses for racing. It’s sleek, black and powerful-looking, made with state-of-the-art 3D-printed technology for comfort and aerodynamics on the bike. But even with her everyday prosthetic, she gets stares, overhears whispers. However, you can change the dynamic, she says. “You just scan someone and there’s something different and they look at you, but if you look back at them and smile, it’s fine when you’re confident with yourself. But if you’re not confident with yourself, then it becomes a negative interaction.”
This is so important to realise: most of the time, the restriction, the shaming, comes from yourself.
And she wants to explain something that you might not realize about a prosthetic – that, rather than an obvious sign of a disability, it’s more like a “protective shield”. “As soon as I take off the prosthetic, I’m vulnerable, you know? I’m naked. I can’t walk anymore. I can’t run away. And also I show weakness.” She adds: “It’s a very, very intimate moment. And you see it in the reaction of other people. They realize, at once, right away, that it’s a very, very special moment. And it means that there is a connection to the person, that I trust the environment [around me] to do this.”
As soon as I take off the prosthetic, I’m vulnerable, you know? I’m naked. I can’t walk anymore. I can’t run away.
The next big challenge is the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, where Denise is aiming to spin London and Rio’s silvers into gold. Training is intense and there’s an obvious tension here – how can an athlete, always striving for perfection, also embrace the opposite? Denise says: “It’s a very interesting perspective because as an athlete, you try for perfection the whole time. To be the best version of yourself. But on the way, you have so many failures. That’s the moment when you can actually become a better version of yourself.”
As an athlete, you try for perfection the whole time. To be the best version of yourself. But on the way, you have so many failures.
Feeling inspired by Denise’s perfectly imperfect confidence? If you want a game-changer, you’ve got to stop waiting – whatever you’re waiting for – and start playing. Denise recommends cycling (of course) but she adds, it doesn’t really matter what sport you choose, as long as it lets you stop, breathe and do something for yourself. “You feel your body, you respect your body, you take time for your body.”
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