The doctors said she would never walk, but they never said she wouldn’t run.
When Sydney Bolen was diagnosed at birth with Cerebral Palsy, her parents were immediately told to start picking out wheelchairs.
Luckily for Sydney, her parents defied doctors’ orders and when she was old enough to walk, signed her up for track, instead.
“My parents were like ‘Nope. You can’t tell us our kid’s not going to be able to do that,’” said Bolen, now 18.
“It kind of just depends on the mindset the parents have when the child is diagnosed,” she said.
“I hit the parent lottery.”
Being new parents, they felt devastated and confused, yet hopeful.
“We were told literally that we needed to change our outlook for her,” said Sydney’s mother, Tami Bolen. “Our expectations of what a typical child is going to be capable of and be able to do needed to change.”
“They said she will probably be in a wheelchair. She’s not going to play sports. She’s not going to participate in gym.”
The doctor’s frightened Sydney’s parents and they struggled to keep hope.
“It was very overwhelming and depressing. You have these dreams and expectations for your children before they’re ever born, let alone once you hold them,” said Tami.
“We knew Sydney had a rough start, but she’s beautiful and she smiled when she was supposed to smile and talked when she was supposed to talk.”
The Bolen’s new-parent attitude pushed them to get a second opinion.
“Still the parent part of you, the protective, hopeful part of you kicks in and we left that appointment to see another doctor to give us more hope and a better answer that we were willing to hear,” she said.
After seeing two more doctors, the Bolen’s struck gold with the third who suggested they sign Sydney up for sports to help increase her muscle strength.
Sydney first became involved in sports in her hometown, Baltimore, at 2, when her parents signed her up for a physically-challenged sports team called the Bennett Blazers.
“She was an only child at the time and we kind of just threw ourselves into it and went every time they’d let us come,” she said.
Starting off, “it wasn’t competitive sports,” said Tami. “It was what was called motor development which was kind of like what she thought was free play in a great big gym with a bunch of equipment. It was really increasing her core strength and her flexibility.”
At 6, Sydney began racing track for the Blazers and to her and her parents’ surprise, kicked butt.
When Sydney moved to Memphis when she was 6, a team for disabled children did not exist, so her parents started one.
After competing throughout her childhood, Sydney caught the eye of a Paralympic scout who invited her to trials in Florida. Sydney, not thrilled about competing at a high level, was eventually pushed by her mother to go.
“Trials were really intense and I was actually really nervous even though in my head I was like ‘I don’t want to,’” said Bolen.
Bolen said everyone around her nervously awaited their turn and quietly warmed up with their elaborate stretches and expensive sports drinks while she didn’t even want to be there in the first place.
“I felt like a fish out of water.”
Despite her unsure attitude, Sydney qualified for team USA at 15. In addition to qualifying, earlier that year in 2010, she earned the title, Girls Track Athlete of the Year.
Sydney represented the United States as the youngest athlete in the 100-meter and 200-meter dash for her first competition in New Zealand at the 2011 ICP World Championships. Later that year, Bolen competed in the Parapan American Games in Mexico.
As the youngest member of the team, Sydney felt even more out of place. But the team welcomed her with open arms, especially teammate and bilateral amputee Katy Sullivan.
“Nobody treated her like a little kid,” said Sullivan. Although they did call her, “little Syd.”
“I think ‘little’ to me was more a description of her size than her age or her maturity. I think it had more to do with the fact that she is an itty bitty person,” said Sullivan.
“We treated her like she was a peer and you know when late 30 year olds, early 30 year olds are treating you like a peer, you grow up quick.”
Competing on a world stage was also something Sydney had to adjust to. Before stepping on the track, Sydney and her competitors waited in a tent to warm up for an hour before her race and then went through a series of practice runs on the track before she finally took off her red, white and blue warm ups.
“They line you up and then they go through everybody in the race and they put a camera in your face and you wave,” said Sydney. “And then it gets completely silent.”
Representing the United States she said felt surreal.
“Paralympic international competition is strange because it’s stressful but at the same time I feel like there’s a camaraderie and a sense of athletes appreciating what other athletes have gone through,” she said. “Everyone’s been through something that’s difficult and so while there is this sense of competition and you want to beat the snot out of your opponent, at the same time you also really have a sense of appreciation for what everyone’s gone through.”
“It’s the kind of thing where you’re friends until you get up to the line and the gun goes off.”
Sydney’s said she met incredibly inspiring people during her time at paralympics.
“It was such an incredible opportunity,” said Bolen. “And such a blessing and it changed the entire way that I looked at my disability and how I looked at life and how there’s really no limitations on what you can do.”
“It gave me a kind of personal value that I think when you have a disability it’s harder to have.”
Sydney’s mother espeically appreciated the motivational members of the Paralympic squad.
Sydney “has some close friends that are much more profoundly challenged than she is that are so capable and accomplished and you just learn from that.” said Sydney’s mother. “It’s so hard to say you can’t do something when you see someone with so much bigger challenges doing something.”
“She’s a better, stronger person because of all the people she met.”
Sydney’s mom also saw an inspiring change in her daughter’s confidence.
“She has a little extra piece of confidence knowing she’s done something like that.” said Tami. “Being ranked in a world list of something no matter what it is feels good.”
Sydney’s friend and teammate, Sullivan, was inspired by Sydney’s overwhelming optimism and her growth throughout competition.
“Sydney is pure joy,” said Sullivan. “She really just grew and has grown and I think that competition and traveling the world and being independent living with a disability has really helped her sort of develop a sense of self.”
After her time competing in the Paralympics in 2011, Sydney said she realized she had a life changing experience and wanted to share it with others.
“There’s so many people that you can impact,” she said.
Sydney’s mom said she sees her daughter continuing to encourage and inspire those around her whether intentional or not.
“I think she’s naturally going to be an uplifter. She’s never let her disability hold her back,” said Tami. “Her desire to help people accept their disability and to do more despite is just a natural part of who she is.”
“She does more than she has to do. It’s inspiring and encouraging and she’s quick to forgive and engage and befriend,” she said.
“She is certainty someone I look up to.”
Through her time traveling and representing the U.S., Sydney said she has developed a new sense of perspective.
“If you are able to put everything into perspective, nothing is a problem. I never have any reason to complain, I should never make a negative comment in my life.”
“It didn’t hit me until I was like 17 how rare that was and how an incredible opportunity I got to experience and how I wouldn’t have gotten to experience it had I not had my disability,” said Bolen. “It kind of opened my eyes to this is who I am and I like who I am.”
“This disability isn’t a burden. It’s a blessing.”