Cup 17

Person: Piotr Pasik

drink: medium house coffee from Grand River Cafe

I met Piotr Pasik at Grand River Café.

He had text me to say he was running a little late so I waited patiently amongst the college students immersed in their textbooks and laptops. When he arrived, he came through the front door and stopped when he saw the two small steps creating an obstacle between him and the front counter.

I waved and started walking toward him; he acknowledged my gesture as he surveyed the situation. When I got to the door, I said a quick hello, let him know there was a barrier-free entrance around the corner, and held the door while he navigated his electric wheelchair out of the small entryway.

He followed me through the new door to the front of the crowded coffee shop. He ordered a large hot chocolate; I went with a regular house coffee. He generously paid for both—straining to reach over his scooter to hand the signed receipt back the cashier.

When our drinks were ready, I carried both to an empty table. Piotr parked and laboriously maneuvered from his scooter into the chair, taking a moment to get situated before we started our conversation.

If I had been alone, the entire process would have taken two minutes. If Piotr had been alone, it would have taken ten.

Piotr has spastic cerebral palsy—a condition that causes degenerative mobility. He can’t get around without his scooter or walker and when he does get around, it’s a slow process. After observing this, I assumed Piotr probably doesn’t get around much. Ten minutes into the conversation, I realized how wrong my assumption was.

He recently got back from a 10-day trip to Ireland. A trip he took by himself.

Without much planning either. Piotr, who is currently working on a Masters in Disabilities Counseling at Michigan State, received grant money to attend a conference in Ireland. He bought a ticket and planned to work out the finer details once he arrived. He knew he wanted to catch a soccer game (he’s a huge soccer fan) and visit his family in Poland for a few days (he immigrated from Poland when he was 11), so he decided to use the conference as an excuse to go on an adventure.

Within hours of landing he had navigated the foreign city, found a taxi driver who graciously volunteered to get him to a scooter rental store, found his hotel, and made it to the soccer game he’d bought tickets to before leaving the States. His afternoon spent surrounded by rambunctious soccer fans watching his favorite sport was just the start of what Piotr called the trip of a lifetime. Of course, he ran into a few challenges during the trip—every traveler does—but the Irish were very accommodating and he didn’t run into any problems he couldn’t solve.

I know what it’s like to travel internationally, so I was already impressed with Piotr. But that was just the start—he also plays Intramural Soccer.

It doesn’t matter that he needs a walker to get around, or that he has clunky movements when he does, he never misses an opportunity to be out on the field (see the State News multimedia feature on him here). He might stands out among the energetic 20-something college boys flying up and down the field as he waits near the goal for an opportunity to score, but he loves every minute.

It began when he needed an elective credit for his undergrad (also at MSU). He loved soccer so that’s what he chose. While many of the exercises were beyond his ability, he focused on the drills he could do and his skills improved. Initially, he was apprehensive about how he his classmates would react when he joined the game, but over time—and with the support of his classmates and a small fan club—he became more comfortable.

Now you can’t get him off the field. And while he loves the rush of being out the field doing something he loves, the real motivation for his efforts aren’t to score goals or win games. He’s trying to change perceptions, he wants to normalize disabilities and help people see that people with disabilities are just regular college students facing unique challenges.

Piotr has an incredible perspective on life and his condition. It’s even more remarkable when you consider he is surrounded by college students that are struggling to find acceptance in a community where it’s easy to feel judged. I asked him how he does it.

He said it hasn’t always been so easy.  For a long time he asked the “why” questions:

Why me?

Why did this happen?

Why can’t I be like everyone else?

When he had exhausted all possible questions, he realized that his condition wasn’t going to change—he was stuck with cerebral palsy for life and he needed to accept that. At the same time, he recognized he wasn’t the only one asking these question. As Piotr said, everyone has a thing—an obstacle or challenge they have to fight. Some people have visible obstacles while others are fighting a silent battle—life is an uphill battle for everyone. That’s when he decided he wasn’t going to let his disability stop him from an incredible life.

And that’s what he’s done. When he saw an opportunity to travel abroad, he took it. He was passionate about soccer, so he signed up. His condition should have stopped him both times, but he decided not to let it—and it hasn’t.

This was the lesson from Cup 17: Our limitations only stop us if we let them.

We can sit back and wait for the conditions to be perfect—make a hundred excuses why you can’t do something—or you can say, screw it and find a way to make it happen.

We all have these lists of things we want to do. A bucket-list of sorts: travel abroad, run a marathon, go to law school, skydive, start a business, learn a new language. And someday we’ll get around to doing these. Why not today? Well, I’m too busy, I don’t have the money, I have this thing that’s stopping me.

But those are just excuses we use so we don’t have to face the fact we are scared. Scared to go outside of our comfort zone where we could fail or face ridicule. So we decide someday we’ll do it. But the truth is, it’s not going to get any easier to do these things—in 20 years, there will be whole new set of excuses that prevent us from following our passions. And if our dreams never come true, we can just blame our thing.

Unless you spend an hour with Piotr, after which you realize that the only thing holding you back from your dreams is yourself.

He knows it’s a cliché to say, but he said if he can achieve his dreams, anyone can. Piotr is a guy with so much stacked against him, and yet he is one of the happiest people I’ve ever met. He is living an incredible life that he loves.

Because he decided, he wasn’t going to use his limitations as an excuse.

I’d say he made the right choice.