Yes, many know me as "The Dyslexic Ninja". But before we get to that part of my story, let me start from the beginning.
I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. At an early age, I showed promise in athletics...playing soccer, T-ball, youth track and swimming. I started taking recreational gymnastics classes and as they say, ”one thing led to another”.
At the age of 7, I started taking gymnastics more seriously and it soon consumed the life of my whole family. I had two wonderful coaches during my early years that assisted me in achieving my goal of becoming a collegiate gymnast.
The first time I competed at the Windy City Classic in Chicago (at UIC), I also watched the collegiate meet. I immediately knew that this was what I wanted to do in my future. The biggest challenge to get there, however, was not related to my gymnastics skills but had to do with academics.
When I was in kindergarten, my family found out that I was deaf in my right ear and also dyslexic. Luckily, my parents though taught me that despite my condition, nothing was impossible. But besides the long gym practices, I also had to double down with tutors and needed special help with my academics. During that time, I received very little support from my academic advisors regarding my future college goals and it was emphasized that I should lower my expectations. (I did NOT!)
Flash forward to my senior year in high school, I won the State Men's AA Championships, scored a satisfactory score on the ACT, and had conversations with several college coaches. Ultimately, I signed with the University of Illinois at Chicago. UIC not only offered me the opportunity to compete on most events, but they also had a wonderful Academic Support Program that I felt very confident in. I was also thrilled to be in Chicago and close to so many great museums that I could visit while pursuing a degree in Anthropology. Finally, the last reason I chose UIC was because of head coach Charley Nelson. I gave my collegiate commitment to Coach Nelson in the lobby of Notre Dame de Chicago Catholic Church after my final visit to Chicago with my family. A moment I will never forget
My four years at UIC did not go smoothly all the time. Living that far away from home and learning how to be independent was tough. Fortunately, my life was centered around my brothers on the gymnastics team. I lived, socialized, and competed with these guys. I did not realize how close I could get to 20 other guys but they will always be my brothers. In my senior year, I won the Edward J. Saleh Memorial Scholarship Award and more importantly, I finished off my career with competing in 44 consecutive meets representing UIC.
A Blessing in Disguise
During my time at UIC, I also found the passion for a different path. I became an American Ninja Warrior. I had always been a fan of the American Ninja Warrior TV show. I submitted my application and was selected. It was an honor and life-changing experience to represent UIC on that show. The media picked up on my story and slanted their coverage to revolve around my struggle with Dyslexia. Soon, I was referred to as the "Dyslexic Ninja Gymnast". I started giving presentations on the UIC Campus about Dyslexia and scheduled speaking engagements all over Illinois. Two summers ago, I was asked to speak in Washington, DC at the "Say Dyslexia" Conference. I was also invited to meet with several Congressmen (including IL Congressman Adam Kinzinger) to discuss Dyslexia and, of course, being a Ninja.
I was so proud of UIC and Coach Charley for hosting the 2018 Men's NCAA Championships at UIC. My parents even flew up from Georgia to spend the weekend with me to attend all the sessions. I had been fortunate enough to participate in three earlier NCAA Championships and I was so happy to see UIC play host.
Only a few months later, I was stunned to find out that the new Athletic Director (Garrett Klassy) GKlassy@UIC.edu - made the announcement that both the Men's and Women's Gymnastics Teams were going to be cut at UIC. My initial frustrations turned into what I do best - being a dyslexic ninja and trying to find a way to help overcome this obstacle. So, I immediately got involved in the #FliptheDecision Campaign.
I have been extremely thankful for so many people who have stepped up to support our campaign to keep these programs going. Many of the USA National team members, as well as a large amount of the current NCAA gymnasts, started their dreams like me when they competed at the Windy City Classic Meet in their youth. They may not have attended UIC, but UIC played a pivotal role in forming their futures.
As I noted earlier, my parents taught me early in my life that anything is possible and obstacles can be overcome. Whether it involves overcoming a learning disability, overcoming an obstacle course or overcoming the tentative decision to drop the UIC Gymnastics Programs. Hopefully, this will be something that will bring the gymnastics community closer together. One day, I hope that I will be at a Windy City Classic Gymnastics Meet with my own son watching UIC gymnasts compete against their fellow collegiate gymnasts from other universities.
FanWord is embarking on a series of stories from UIC’s current team members and other folks whose lives have been positively, and irrevocably, impacted by UIC Gymnastics. As you read what UIC Gymnastics has accomplished and the lives it has touched, I hope you will understand the need for these programs to continue into the future.
For more stories on this series, click here.