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  • Writer's pictureShelby Bavin

My Invisible Disability

The sound of synchronized blades slicing through the water has comforted me for years.

Growing up, I never expected rowing to become such a central part of my life. I have always been an overly ambitious and goal-oriented person, however, throughout my childhood, my dreams often felt unattainable for reasons that were out of my control.

I was in elementary school when the symptoms started. It wasn’t until my dad found me crying and clutching my stomach on the landing of our basement steps that we knew something was seriously wrong.

After suffering for months, I was finally diagnosed with Crohn’s

disease. For those that don’t know, Crohn’s disease is a type of Inflammatory Bowel Disease affecting the lining of the digestive tract. Crohn’s disease can cause life-threatening complications and has no known cure. The disease symptoms include: severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, weight loss, anemia, malnutrition, and fatigue, among many others.

As I battled this invisible disability, I felt like I could never be myself. The other kids at school couldn’t begin to understand the physical and mental debilitation my condition causes. The school cafeteria was my worst nightmare as I was constantly being pestered with questions:

Why aren’t you eating? Why do you drink Ensure? My grandma drinks that! Why are you never in class? Are you contagious? What’s wrong with you?

Suffering from severe stomach pain, aching joints, chronic fatigue, and many more symptoms, I often felt I had to put in twice the amount of work to be able to accomplish what most kids found easy. Frequent hospital visits and the seemingly never-ending symptoms forced me to give up many of the things I loved to do. Playing sports became especially frustrating, and it eventually became too difficult to pursue activities like soccer and lacrosse.

Perhaps the most difficult part of living with Crohn’s disease is the fact that it is invisible.

Far too many times I’ve heard the words, “...But you don’t look sick?” It was hard to justify giving up sports without a cast or crutches, but appearance has little to do with a person's abilities. This demonstrates how judging people based on what we see rather than what we know is damaging.

Despite my inability to compete, I decided I wouldn't let Crohn's dictate my choices. The word “no” didn’t compute; If anything, it made me more driven. When I wanted to keep playing soccer despite being on a liquid diet and a surplus of medication, I switched to goalie. The position allowed me to compete without my symptoms flaring and my abilities weren’t as hindered by fatigue. However, the medication I was on stunted my growth and I discovered that being a 4’10” goalie was no match for the 6’7” goal post. Although I loved the sport, I ultimately felt defeated and wanted to pursue something that would allow me to showcase my strengths.

In the eighth grade, my dad eventually pushed me to try out for rowing after my brother had completed his first season. Because of my height and condition, my dad encouraged me to try coxing. At first, I was opposed to the idea, but now I am grateful my dad kept pushing – even though he didn’t give me much of a choice :)

I don’t remember exactly how or when it happened, but I fell in love with rowing. I started as a coxswain on the men’s team - which my brother hated at the time. The adrenaline of racing and the leadership role that the coxswain shoulders reassured me that I am more than my disability.

At first, it was nerve wracking. I was a Freshman coxing the Junior Varsity boat and the idea of encouraging a group of upperclassmen boys was terrifying. Adding to the stress, our coach was especially tough on us because he saw the potential of our crew and got frustrated when we did not perform to our highest potential. Despite these difficulties, I refused to quit.

Being new to the team, I had yet to gain the respect of my teammates and found it difficult to get them to respond to the calls I was attempting to make. I found myself struggling to find confidence on the water on top of the struggles I felt internally due to my disability.

I finally snapped.

One day we were out on the river during an especially hard workout and our boat was not connecting as it should have. After bickering with one another during our rest and feeling ignored, I finally yelled, “Maybe if you shut your mouth and opened your ears you would hear me!” Surprised by my sudden outburst, the attitude shifted and we prioritized getting our blades in the water together rather than on who was doing what wrong. Minutes later we completed one of the best race pieces we had all season. Funnily enough, this incident was the start of many long-lasting friendships.

After that day our chemistry was impeccable, we trained for hours before and after school, and went on to become Virginia State Champions. Outside of designated practice time, we planned boat dinners, went fishing, and played pickup basketball games. Learning how strong friendships cultivate boat speed fueled my passion for rowing. With my coach as one of my biggest supporters and my teammates as some of my best friends to this day, I fell in love with the sport. They helped me learn how to make effective calls and channel my confidence despite the hardships I faced outside of practice.

Over the course of four years, I discovered my voice both on and off the water. Rowing became more of a lifestyle than a hobby. Being a leader on the water gave me the confidence to excel academically and athletically knowing I was worth more than my disability and stronger because of it.

Early mornings and twenty hour weeks are a difficult feat for someone even without Crohn's disease, but coxing became my lifeline and I knew stopping after high school wasn’t an option. Throughout the recruiting process, I persisted through my disease, doubts from family and friends, and everything a normal student athlete goes through. In the end, I achieved my goal and am now a Division I athlete.

It has been ten years since being diagnosed with Crohn’s and I can proudly call myself a member of UVA’s nationally ranked rowing team. The next four years will undoubtedly have its ups and downs, and being chronically ill will be a lifelong difficulty, but I refuse to let my disability dictate my life.

I chose Virginia rowing to be a part of something bigger than myself, this family has given me power over my disability.

Disabilities can shape us, but will never define us.

If given the choice, I wouldn’t change my diagnosis. I am proud of who I have become because of the struggles I have experienced and grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. Our team lives by the saying: Entitled to Nothing, Grateful for Everything. It embodies my story, and everything I stand for. I wouldn’t have it any other way.


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