Forward: Prove Them Wrong

In 2008, I completed my quest to climb the “Seven Summits,” the tallest peak on every continent. For a blind person, climbing mountains has been an unusual path to say the least. I’m fortunate to live an exciting and fulfilling life, full of adventure, but my journey began in a similar way to the kids featured in the stories you are about to read.

As a young teenager, I began to lose the last traces of my sight. I could no longer walk around by myself, so my brothers and parents had to lead me. I hated what was happening. Blindness was like a storm descending upon me with such force, I thought I might be crushed by it.

Just before I lost my sight entirely, I was watching a TV show called That’s Incredible. I could still see a little out of one eye, although I had to crane forward a few inches away from the screen. Featured on the program that night was an amazing athlete named Terry Fox. Terry had lost a leg to cancer and, not yet discharged from the hospital, made a bold decision to run across Canada from east to west. Many people would have shrunk under the weight of this tragedy, but Terry did the complete opposite; he squared off with adversity and ran into its very midst.

With my nose pressed against the TV screen, and with tears rolling down my face, I watched Terry run. The thousands of miles took a tremendous toll on his amputated leg and primitive prosthetic. He hobbled along mile after mile, fighting the pain of blisters and raw skin.

What struck me the most was the look on Terry’s face. It was a look of extreme contradiction: full of exhaustion yet radiant with exultation. In his thin face was the trace flicker of an intense internal light that burned power into his struggling frame. That light seemed to actually feed on adversity, to consume it like fuel. The bigger the challenge, the brighter that light burned. I wondered if that light burned in me. Could I use it to become more focused, more determined, more creative? Could I use that light to transcend my own limitations to give my life purpose? The image filled my sagging spirit and gave me a feeling of utter courage. It was while staring into Terry’s face that I first wondered how we could turn into the storm and emerge on the other side, not just undamaged, but stronger and better.

Since seeing Terry on TV, I’ve met many others like him. I call people like Terry, alchemists. They take the lead that life continually piles on top of them and find a way to turn it into gold. An alchemist doesn’t just deal well with adversity. They actually take it a step further. They find a way to seize hold of that storm of adversity which swirls around us, to harness its energy, and use its force to propel themselves to places they might not have gone to in any other way. These people see obstacles not as a deterrent, but as the pathway to growth, innovation, and pioneering achievements.

Prove Them Wrong: The Kids Who Refused to Quit is a book about alchemy. How did a child whom medical experts labeled severely brain-damaged grow up to earn two college degrees and become a meteorologist? How did a teenaged girl who lost her foot in an accident grow up to use her engineering skills to assist others to walk? How did a young boy who could not communicate in the traditional manner grow up to build a successful business that allows television to communicate to millions worldwide? From engineers to educators, from Olympic gold medalists to professional athletes, from scientists and inventors to acclaimed entertainers, from attorneys and authors to highly trained specialists, and from leaders of businesses to leaders who leave a legacy, the kids you will read about in this book have blasted through others’ expectations to make a major mark on our nation and the world.

The kids who refused to quit are not extra-ordinary. They do not possess supernatural powers. They are not born with an internal GPS unit steering them away from barriers. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Every young person in this book faced barriers so enormous that, to just about everyone watching, it seemed they had no choice but to give up on their life dreams. So why didn’t they quit? When many youth who have a disability are not completing high school, why did the young people featured in this book refuse to quit? When the majority of adults who have a disability are underemployed or unemployed, how did the adults you will read about in this book achieve successful employment? What do they know that the majority of their counterparts do not know?

A Chinese proverb says, “To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.” Every person in this book is coming back. They have been down that road that every young person is about to travel. They will tell you what they have discovered on their journey. They will teach you lessons of risk-taking, of unshakable perseverance, and you will have the rare privilege to journey with them as they climb higher than anyone dreamed possible.

– Erik Weihenmayer