Ben Jackson is 22 years old. Growing up in Tobyhanna in Pennsylvania, he has faced challenges since the day he was born, which is maybe one aspect of how he has conditioned himself to defy any expectations from the outside world around him.
Diagnosed with cerebral palsy as an infant, Ben came to understand that his physical condition would always set him apart from his peers. Often the only child with a disability in his class, Ben sometimes looked for something besides his disability to help him stand out and feed what he calls his naturally competitive nature.
He found that sense of confidence in athletics; specifically, in the sport of wrestling.
“I’ve always been competitive, and I wanted to work at something, and perfect it,” said Ben, who is now a student at North Hampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (we just discovered that there is a ‘Bethlehem’ in the states too!)
Wrestling allowed Ben to transform himself from a budding athlete that didn’t win any competition in his first year, to one that collected trophies and accolades for his sparring abilities in the remaining years.
Another source of confidence from day one have been Ben’s parents. Margaret and Pedro both recall earliest memories of being told all the things that their son wouldn’t be able to do in his life after being diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy at 17 months old.
“Most doctors told us that he would not likely be able to lead a very productive life as far as even walking, and doing even just the basic things. He is now 22 and he attends college, he has received numerous awards upon graduation from high school and since the age of 13 he has been competing in the sport of wrestling.” his mother Margaret told us.
His father Pedro speaks about his son with great pride, and recalls how he made it his mission from early on as a father that he will always instill confidence in him, and a sense of ‘never giving up’.
“Whatever they said my son can’t do, it was my job to reverse that and show that he can do it. They said he’d never walk, so I made him run. They said he wouldn’t be able to ride a bike or skateboard, and so I taught him that he could do both! And ain’t no man more prouder of his son than how I am about where Ben is today, and where he has come from in his journey!”
Growing up, Ben admits he was a little shy. Sometimes, he was the only student in his class or school that had a disability. He longed to find a way to express himself.
“I was attracted by the physical aspect of Wrestling initially, and then when I moved to college because they didn’t have a wrestling team I got myself into powerlifting and weights training.” Ben remembered. “I love how both sports have made me challenge myself both mentally and physically!”
Ben’s initial wrestling attempts did not turn out successful, but in the end, that lack of achievement in the first year made him recommit to his physical training.
“The biggest challenge I had to face was building my self-confidence,” he said. “My first year competing, I didn’t win any matches but that wasn’t my first, instant goal. My goal initially was to get closer and closer to winning, and improving and to focus on that. And then I started winning!”
“I ended up competing in all sorts of tournaments, and from there I just gradually improved my wrestling over time,” he said.
Ben is now on track towards a longer term goal to be ready to compete in either the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in the sport of Powerlifting, or if not ready by this time, in Tokyo at the following Games. And his training coach, family and friends all have the confidence in his ability and mindset to achieve anything he puts his mind to.
After all, defying expectations and exceeding his own limitations is the only thing he has ever known, and done.
“What sports like Wrestling previously, and now Powerlifting has taught me is that you can build your body, but it’s important to follow it by building your mind which is even more important I’d say,” he added. “They just go hand in hand, especially for me who has more obstacles than others to get through!”
Ben’s father Pedro, when talking about success and what his son can achieve told us:
“What made Ben successful is the idea that ‘I can do this – disability is not a disability’. Ben already knew he was different; I didn’t have to tell him that. Ben’s personality made it so much easier because he was such a coachable kid. He worked harder than any kid in the room and it is this natural aspect of his personal now that will make him successful in anything he puts his mind to!”
In addition to competing in Sport, Ben now also hopes to become a motivational speaker in the future.
“I want to work on my public speaking and really build my voice because I want to share my story,” he said. “I would like to speak about disability issues.”
If Ben could tell teens with disabilities who are being discouraged from participating in sports one thing, it would be to ignore the naysayers and defy everyone else’s expectations.
“I would tell them not to be afraid to find something new,” he said. “Don’t be limited to other people’s perceptions.”
And we’d certainly extend this same mindset for everyone who lives by the expectations of the wider world around them.
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Special thanks to Mark Luethi, Ben Jackson and his family and friends in Pennsylvania, USA.
Filming/Photography- M.Luethi for Guavo Media