Alumni: Megan Absten


Megan was recently featured on People.com for teaching kids with disabilities about self-acceptance.
Read the whole article HERE.



Megan Absten admires the fighter mentality, the focus on courage, strength and competition. It’s what got her excited about wrestling in middle school and what led to her athletic comeback as an amputee. Having one arm, she will tell you, is not what defines her, but she’s comfortable with her injury and won’t mind if you stare.

Megan has always been a committed athlete and has often pushed herself physically. The Burlington­Edison High School wrestling coach saw this in Megan when he recruited her to the team after watching her wrestling with her younger brother at a barbeque. She added competitive wrestling to her track career and was winning, often. Then, over winter break during her freshman year, everything changed.

On December 28, 2009, Megan and some older friends were riding ATV quads in a quarry. Megan, behind the wheel, rolled up a bank of rocks and flipped the vehicle, pinning her arm under the roll bar. She was helicoptered to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where, despite her arm already being 98% amputated, doctors spent more than 40 hours trying to save it, grafting muscle and skin from her back to her arm. She flatlined three times. Eventually it became clear that further attempts would be futile. Two weeks after she arrived in the hospital, she went home, her left arm amputated just below the shoulder.

Moving On

Megan went through all the stages of grieving. “I wasted a lot of time feeling sorry for myself and slacking off,” she said. Physical and emotional recovery, however, weren’t far behind. Within days she began occupational and physical therapy. She had to relearn everyday tasks: tying her shoes, typing, putting her hair up. She had to focus on posture, so that her natural balance wouldn’t make her slope to the right.

Soon she headed back to the gym and began working on core strength and balance with trainer Laurie Saunders. “Laurie took Megan under her wing and immediately started helping her get in touch with herself and her new body,” said Megan’s mother, Jennifer. “Having someone pushing her physically was a huge contribution to the remarkable person she has become.”

“I became addicted,” said Megan. “I didn’t want having one arm to limit me. I was super passionate about exercise.” Megan even kept wrestling, losing match after match, until she finally pinned a girl, and after proving to herself that she could do it, she quit. She continued to run for her high school track team but felt that her environment held her back. She wanted something more than her small rural community, and she needed a fresh start. She started looking around for other school options and found Annie Wright Upper School.

“I thought I wanted the academic rigor and challenge,” she said. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could get here and do well here.” Megan joined Annie Wright as a junior, and it gave her the fresh start she so desired. “It was way better than I could have imagined,” she said. “I didn’t know how transformative it would be. I learned how to deal with different situations and with myself, and the discipline, structure, support and role models are helping me to sculpt myself into the person I want to be.” Those role models included Annie Wright volleyball player Lani Kalalau ’13 and rower Kadie Brown ’13, as well as speedskater Clare Jeong, who like Megan will graduate next month. They also include her track and cross country coach, Troy Droubay, and physical education teacher and coach Amy Edmunds, who encouraged her to pursue the Paralympics.

Becoming an International Athlete    

After committing herself and training hard, Megan competed in the the US Paralympics Track and Field National Championships in San Antonio, Texas, last June, and earned Silver medals for both the 100m and 200m. Coach Edmunds traveled with her. “Megan had some eye opening experiences, meeting Paralympians who were severely injured in warfare and who talked openly about their injuries with humor,” she said. “The meet also opened her eyes to the positive opportunities that have been laid out before her and how to take her accident and use it as a strength.”

Based on her success at the national level, Megan was selected for Team USA in the International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships in Lyon, France, last July. All at once, she was an international athlete representing her country. Though her performance in Lyon was not what she had hoped, she gained tremendous experience and is gearing up for
qualifying for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio.

Megan trains with both a speed coach on the track and an athletic trainer at the gym. Her athletic trainer, Ricky Parker at Innovative Fitness, first met Megan when she came to a regularly scheduled boot camp. Previous to becoming a personal trainer, Parker worked for 14 years as a lab technician creating orthotics and prosthetics. His experience made him comfortable with Megan from the get-­go. “I went right up to her and asked her how long she’s been an amputee,” he said. A few months later she made an appointment to work out with him. Regular training sessions began.

Parker describes Megan as “powerful, strong-­willed and determined.” Sometimes that determination means he needs to pull her back to keep her from overdoing it and risking injury. “She doesn’t shy away from anything,” he said. “Everything I ask of her she does. She never says no.”

Academic Hurdles

Meanwhile, Megan was gearing up for another challenge: senior year at Annie Wright Upper

School and the college application process. Ironically, many of Megan’s biggest challenges at

Annie Wright have been academic rather than physical. Coming from an environment where, out of the two thirds of graduates who go on to higher education, nearly 60 percent attend two­ year programs at a local community college, Megan was not prepared for a demanding

International Baccalaureate curriculum from which 100% of graduates go to four­ year colleges.

“I think that last year she came to understand that success in academics and success in athletics are not mutually exclusive—that they, in fact, enhance one another,” said Assistant Head of Schools Susan Bauska, her English teacher. “Really, that was what last year was about for her—to come to an appreciation of the possibility of a life of the mind, as well as of the body.”

Her math teacher and track coach, Troy Droubay, also sees benefits from her track successes both in and out of the classroom. Megan has a leadership role on the Annie Wright track team, inspiring teammates to perform at a higher level. “She now demonstrates perseverance and commitment in ways that were not apparent before,” he said.

As in her athletic career, Megan has learned to take academic risks and has gained confidence
from these. Recently, during a “meeting of minds” in her history class, Megan dressed up as Mao Zedong. “Megan was a lone voice because China didn’t have many strong allies at this time in history,” said her teacher Bridgette McGoldrick. “It is moments like this where Megan is most impressive, in my mind, because she is open to trying and gives it an authentic attempt even if it is not necessarily her particular forte.”

What’s Next

To her peers at Annie Wright, Megan exudes confidence and strength. She is happy to talk about her accident. She is fine when people stare (“I get it,” she says. “I’m definitely a starer myself.”). She spoke to Lower School students in chapel about her injury and encourages curious Upper Schoolers to touch her stump.

“The accident helped Megan realize who she is inside,” said her mother, Jennifer. “She has been an inspiration to so many people. She does more with one arm than most people do with two!”

Behind Megan’s maturity, toughness and capability, however, Megan is human, and at times distractible and unsure of herself. She seems just as proud of making her way through the academic challenges of Annie Wright as she does of her speed on the track. She is excited and honored not only to be a Paralympian, but also to thrive at the University of Puget Sound.
Living with one arm

Megan makes it look easy. She seems to do it all: write, run, even drive, with one arm. Her confidence, strength, passion and beauty may seem to more than make up for her injury. Living with one arm, however, certainly presents its challenges for a teenaged girl, from appearance (for example the frustration of an outfit not fitting properly with one arm, and have you ever tried putting your hair in a ponytail with one hand?), to everyday tasks such as cooking, to acceptance of the physical limitation that will prevent you from ever achieving the speed that your two­-armed self may have had.

Megan only speaks of these challenges when pressed. Those who work with her and need to make adaptations (many do not) rise to the challenge. Personal trainer Ricky Parker walks around the gym with one hand behind his back, discovering what’s possible, what’s practical for Megan. Donald Sidman, Megan’s honors chemistry teacher, did the same exercise in the science lab, determined to make her self­-reliant. He found that, similarly to cooking, two hands are often needed: one to manipulate the tool and the other to steady the object (think of chopping an onion). Mr Sidman invented various devices to help her achieve autonomy in her experiments. One such tool, created with the help of Robin Branson from Annie Wright’s maintenance department, is a flask-­washing device, complete with brush attachments, that attaches to the counter.
 

Contact

Annie Wright Schools
Main Campus:
827 North Tacoma Avenue
Tacoma, WA 98403
253.272.2216

Downtown Campus:
936 Broadway
Tacoma, WA 98402
253.272.2216

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Founded in Tacoma, Washington, in 1884, Annie Wright Schools serve students from age three through high school. Annie Wright Lower  and Middle Schools offer co-ed programs in Preschool through Grade 8, while separate Upper Schools for girls  and boys offer day and boarding options in Grades 9 through 12. Annie Wright is proud to be an International Baccalaureate World School.