Paralympian Robyn Stawski is no stranger to adversity. She faces it every day, just getting out of bed and getting ready for work. Stawski was born with cerebral palsy, and, throughout her youth, she saw it as a disability.
"I think it's ironic because I used my disability as an excuse to get out of P.E. class," Stawski said. "Now I don't see myself as having a disability, I see myself having different abilities."
Stawski has come a long way from being a shy, introverted eighth-grader huddled in the P.E. supply closet doing homework while the other kids ran and jumped and played sports. Now she is a decorated Paralympian who has traveled the world and even now, at 34, still has an eye on future Paralympic competition.
Nothing has ever come easy for Stawski. From birth, she faced a mountain of physical obstacles. Attending public school in Seminole County, she developed a host of mental obstacles that proved an even greater mountain to climb than her physical one. Her lack of interaction with other students pushed her further into isolation.
"I felt like that closet was my comfort zone," Stawski said.
Then one day an administrator named Mary Lane found her in the closet and showed her life outside of it.
"She (Lane) asked me what I was afraid of," Stawski recalled. "That's about when I stopped being afraid."
Very quickly, Stawski was introduced to adaptive swimming. This is where she met Dr. Karen Neuman, a quadriplegic who worked at Lake Mary High School.
"Every excuse I ever had was invalid at that point," Stawski said.
Stawski would go on to compete in the 1994 International Paralympic Swimming World Championships in Malta, in breast stroke.
This experience served as Stawski's introduction to Paralympics.
From there, Stawski began to train in adaptive throwing events, disc, shot and javelin. Very quickly, she found herself at the US Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California. She trained at the Olympic center in Colorado Springs. It culminated in a trip to the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.
"It was such an honor and privilege to represent my country in such a manner," Stawski said. "Walking into that opening ceremony with 80 thousand people in the stadium, wearing my Team-USA uniform — it's something not to be taken for granted."
Stawski mingled with Paralympians from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan in an eye-opening experience that she will never forget.
"It brings a new magnitude to what unity stands for," Stawski said. "We were able to put our differences aside and share this commonality."
It was no easy road getting to Beijing. Stawski was set to compete in the 2004 Paralympics in Athens but a medical issue unrelated to the cerebral palsy had her in an emergency room with doctors trying to figure out how she was retaining up to three gallons of water.
"I was lying there in the hospital bed wondering where my life was going," Stawski said. "I saw myself there in that bed and I saw this huge mountain in front of me."
She asked herself if she was ready to climb it.
The answer was "yes."
A particular verse from the Bible was instrumental in getting Stawski out of that hospital bed in Sarasota: Jeremiah 29:11.
"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future," it reads.
Stawski cites her Christian faith as the primary factor in keeping her going throughout the years. By 2005, she was training again. Seeing the Olympic training facilities again "re-kindled" her desire to compete.
She now faces a new mountain. In 2009, she underwent a somewhat experimental surgery to help reduce spasticity in her hamstring muscles. The long recovery process eliminated her chances of competing in the 2012 London Paralympics. However, a set back like that was not enough to deter Stawski.
"My philosophy is, with every setback there is an equal or greater comeback," Stawski said.
Stawski now casts her ambitious eyes toward triathlons. The adaptive triathlon consists of a 200-meter swim, a 4-mile bike ride (hand operated pedals), and a 1-mile run. She did her first one in 2009 with the assistance of forearm crutches.
She currently trains and works the front desk at the New Tampa YMCA.
The indomitable athlete also has her sights set on the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. Her newest challenge is her categorization. Stawski used to be considered an F-33 athlete, but after the surgery and as she continues to improve her ability to stand and motor functions, she is moving up the categories that have different standards for the athlete's disability. She could move into the F-34 or even the F-35 category. As she moves up in category, the competition gets more difficult. Throwers throw farther, swimmers swim faster. However, it's a change that Stawski welcomes.
"My quality of life is advancing," Stawski said. "Muscles that did not know they worked or thought they couldn't work are starting to get with the program."