Jessica Rogers, one of the most accomplished athletes at Woodson High, struggles to think of a sport she hasn’t tried. Overlooking her school’s new turf field from a spot in the bleachers, she rattles them off: swimming, ice hockey, basketball, cycling, track, even triathlons.
The only thing Rogers can’t lay claim to is the tool most athletes consider their most valuable: the use of her legs. She was born with caudal regression syndrome (CRS), a rare disorder that entails abnormal fetal development of the lower spine. Her spine stops about midway down her back, below which she is paralyzed.
After her lower legs were amputated at age 3, Rogers tried using prosthetic legs and forearms crutches, but she soon abandoned those cumbersome devices in favor of walking around on her hands and wheeling around in her wheelchair. She’s been a restless daredevil ever since, using her competitive inner drive to look past the obstacles in her way.
“Since I was really young I definitely learned very, very quickly to really just accept it, I guess you could say,” Rogers said. “This is who I am, and this is what my life is. Why should I complain about it? Why should I let that stop me?”
Rogers didn’t let anyone stop her this August at the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation World Junior Championships in Puerto Rico, where she finished first in the 100, 200 and 400-meter races on top of a second-place finish in the 800. Those accomplishments distinguished the 16-year-old as one of 55 athletes to be named a 2013 U.S. Paralympic High School Track and Field All-American.
Though it might limit her at times, Rogers was able to use her petite stature to produce impressive success in Puerto Rico.
“On the start I have somewhat of an advantage just because I’m so small. I can get started a little bit quicker,” said Rogers, who weighs 50 pounds. “But a lot of it is technique because you have to be really quick for the start, but then you go into your long-term stroke and you have to be able to maintain that through the whole race and not die out halfway through.”
Rogers’s triumph in the Caribbean wasn’t her first appearance in a big international meet. Two years ago she competed in the Parapan American Games, a multi-sport event held after the Pan American Games for athletes with physical disabilities. A year-round swimmer who used to practice five days a week, she came away from the competition in Guadalajara, Mexico with a silver medal in the 100-meter breaststroke. The year before Rogers set American Paralympic records in the women’s 100 SCY breaststroke and 200 SCY IM. She continues to swim for the FISH swim club under coach Andrew Cipriano, though a busier academic workload this year has reduced her practices to three times per week.
Those practices aren’t just geared toward regular swim meets anymore. Rogers’s latest athletic obsession revolves around sprint triathlons, which feature a half-mile swim, a 16-mile bike ride and a 5K run. She accomplishes the bike ride on a hand-cycle and the run on her track chair, but she says the toughest part of her first race — she’s completed five at this point — was navigating the choppy lake water.
“It was hard getting over the fact that I was not swimming in a pool because I had never done open water swimming before,” she said. “So jumping in a lake at 8 in the morning, not exactly every person’s dream. And I had to put on a wet suit. Just a totally different world than [normal] swimming. Totally fun, but very different. But it’s a great community. The people are all so much fun.”
Back on the track, Rogers continued her improvement earlier this month at a five-day training camp at the Spire Institute in Geneva, Ohio. There she learned from the likes of David Prince, a single-leg amputee runner who lost his foot in a motorcycle accident before going on to win a gold medal a few years later at the 2011 Parapan Games, the same competition where Rogers claimed silver in the breaststroke. Cathy Sellers, the Director of Paralympic Track and Field at the U.S. Olympic Committee, was also on hand, along with numerous disabled athletes whose presence reminded Rogers that there are others out there working just as hard as she is.
Born into poverty in Sao Carlos, Brazil, Jessica was adopted at the age of 18 months by Phyllis Rogers, a sign language interpreter who has housed two disabled children and six deaf children from Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Russia and China. Jessica showed off her athletic inclinations as a 4-year-old when she tagged along to her older sister Christina’s track meet. Phyllis placed a helmet on Jessica, put her in a chair and watched her tear down the track before encountering a fence. Rather than stop there, Jessica got out of her chair and tried to find a way around it.
It’s that refusal to acknowledge barriers, Phyllis says, that allows her daughter to excel on the track and in the classroom.
“She refuses to get beat. She’s just extremely competitive,” Phyllis said. “In everything she does, she’s proven to people that there are not the kinds of limits that they assume are there. So every time she participates, she has a message.”
On top of her endeavors in the classroom, on the track and in the water, Rogers is also the founder and president of iSACRA (International Sacral Agenesis/Caudal Regression Association), a group dedicated to providing a sense of community to the people and families affected by SA/CRS. The international group took off last year as a Facebook group but gained further ground when it launched its website (http://isacra.org/home.php) six months ago. Now up to 450 members, iSACRA recently gained non-profit status in Virginia. Rogers hopes that accomplishment spreads to other states so that they can start conducting fundraising events and annual meetings.
“I figured there were probably other people around the world with the same thing and the same situation and have no idea,” Rogers said. “I thought it would be really cool to just reach out and say, ‘We’re here. It’s going to be okay. It’s not as awful as people might say it is or think it is.’”