Fiercely independent and very strong, Kanya Sesser trains for the Paralympics
A young man holds the door open for Kanya Sesser as she approaches the entrance to a building at Portland Community College.
'I'm good,' she says, as she veers her wheelchair to the left and opens the adjacent door for herself. Other people, unaware, stream in and out of the door that the young man continues to hold open, as he stands there, his eyebrows slightly raised.
At 19, Kanya, who was born without legs, said she'd rather do things on her own.
'I do not like people helping me out,' Kanya said. 'I'm very independent. 'I've always been like that. I'll just be nice about it, but I'll say, 'It's OK. I got this.' Honestly, if I had legs and I saw somebody in a wheelchair, I'd probably do the same thing. But even if there's no ramp, I'll get out and push my chair up the stairs, on my own. I don't mind.
'Honestly, if I'm single for the rest of my life, I don't care. I got this. I can live on my own, support myself, my needs. You don't need to open doors for me. I'm a woman. Seriously, ladies don't let a man carry your purse. That just looks wrong.'
Kanya, a 2011 Tualatin High School graduate, is in the middle of her second term at the Sylvania campus, where she's studying sports business. On the weekends, Kanya travels to Eugene to train with coach Kevin Hansen of World Wheelchair Sports for the U.S. Paralympic Track and Field team.
In between weekend practices, Kanya works on a training plan created by her coach that includes swimming, as well as daily 'runs,' often from her house to the store, an 8- to 10-mile trip.
Kanya has never let her physical disability hold her back from fervently pursuing athletics. She began in middle school with wheelchair basketball and track.
'The competition, it's fun. When you're doing the races and stuff like that, you're pumped up and you want people to recognize you,' Kanya said. 'You're with people who are like you, and you want to get stronger and you want to get good at something.'
First stop is for Thai food
Kanya's track career has taken her across the nation and overseas to participate in various racing events. At the moment, she is continuing her track training with hopes of making it to the Paralympics in London at the end of August to compete in the 100 and 200 meter sprints. She plans on making the qualifying time at any number of the races she will compete in this spring and summer. These races will take place in Oregon, Arizona, California and Indiana.
'Financially, it's been a little rough,' said Jane Sesser, Kanya's mother. 'We have a fundraiser every year to offset some of the costs.'
This year, the fundraiser will be an English-themed dinner (in honor of the 2012 Paralympics being held in London) at the home of Jane's sister in early March.
'You get to travel a lot,' Jane said of her daughter's involvement in national and international sports events. 'We have kind of a routine that we worked out. She's been to the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf Coast, and in almost every city we've been to, the first thing we do is go eat at a Thai restaurant.'
The origin of the mother-daughter tradition is Kanya's heritage. The Sesser family adopted Kanya from Thailand at the age of 5.
'I had two boys and I wanted a daughter,' Jane said. 'I was 40 when my second son was born. I kept trying, but I wasn't getting pregnant again, so my husband and I started looking into adopting girls.
'I didn't feel like I needed to have the baby experience again, so I was willing to look for an older child.'
Jane went through the state of Oregon first, but eventually someone suggested international adoption, which they nearly disregarded as too expensive. Then they learned about a little girl without legs who had been abandoned on the steps of a Buddhist temple in Thailand.
'She sounded like she was a pretty typical, normal child, which she was,' Jane said. 'We pursued it and found out that, because she was disabled, the Thai government was willing to reduce a lot of their fees.'
After a long process, Kanya came to live with her new family in Tualatin.
'I wasn't particularly looking for a disabled child,' Jane said. 'When Kanya came up, I was more concerned about whether she'd been abused and what kind of personality she had. She'd been treated pretty well in Thailand. The only thing that wasn't normal about her was that she didn't have any legs. My mother at the time was in a wheelchair and I thought, 'Well, we can handle that.' So we did.
'It's kind of like my husband said, 'When you have a birth child, you don't know how they're going to turn out either.' My oldest son has a disability. There's no guarantee. You do what you have to. You love them and you take care of them and provide what you can, the best you can.'
It took Kanya several years before she was able to speak English fluently.
'When I was little, I used to talk to myself in front of the mirror,' Kanya said. 'I had nobody else to talk to because I didn't understand English.'
Now, she remembers only two words of Thai vocabulary: 'hello' and 'thank you.'
It's rude to give up
Though some might assume that Kanya has led a difficult life, Kanya said she disagrees.
'I love it that I was born without legs,' Kanya said. 'I'm glad that God let me have confidence, and that I can see the upside. I'm lucky to be alive because of him, and I still have potential.'
Kanya points out a common difference in ideology among those who were born without legs, like herself, and those who have lost their legs or lost use of their legs during their lifetime because of an accident or illness.
'My friend was in a car accident and ended up in a wheelchair,' Kanya said. 'He said he'd rather die, because you can't do anything in a wheelchair, but that made me mad, because when you were able you had a lot of stuff you could do, but you just give up when your legs can't work? It's kind of rude in a way. Are you trying to say we can't do stuff because we're in wheelchairs?
'People who had something and then lost it, it's hard for them to get used to it, to get back up on their own, so they feel depressed about it…Why would you want to be angry? It's just life. That's why I want to be a motivational speaker.'
Kanya will in fact have the opportunity to begin living out that dream, as she speaks and shares her story at Westview High School next month.
'She'd like to wear shoes; she'd like to wear long pants, but that's part of her life. She really doesn't feel sorry for herself,' Jane said. 'Kanya is one of the most positive people I know.'
As an athlete, a positive attitude is definitely an asset. Kanya is letting her passion for sports and her positivity carry her wherever it is she wants to go. Though she continues her track training for the London Paralympics, snow sports are her latest obsession. Monoskiing, to be specific, which is an alternative form of skiing for those who do not have legs or have lost use of them.
'I was more into monoskiing (than track) since I was 10, but I didn't have the opportunity to get my own monoski,' Sesser said.
With the help of organizations like Challenge Athlete Foundation, which Kanya has approached, and the fundraising efforts of her family and community, that may change soon.
For more information on Kanya's fundraiser in March, or to donate money, call Jane Sesser at 503-691-1326.