Inspiring Athletes Who Have Overcome Their Disabilities to Dominate

Rocky Bleier Rocky Bleier was a halfback for the NFL Pittsburgh Steeler in 1968 and then again from 1970 to 1980. He was born and raised… Trista - September 10, 2022
USA Today

Rocky Bleier

Rocky Bleier was a halfback for the NFL Pittsburgh Steeler in 1968 and then again from 1970 to 1980. He was born and raised in Wisconsin and, as he grew older, took a liking to football and baseball. His dream of football followed him to college, where he played for Notre Dame. However, in 1968, Rocky Bleier was drafted into the Vietnam War. While on patrol on August 20th, a single bullet wounded him in the left thigh. While he was down, a grenade exploded nearby, sending shrapnel into his right leg when he tried to leap over it.

As a result, Rocky Bleier damaged his right foot, believing he would never play football again. However, after receiving a postcard from Art Rooney, the owner of the Steelers, he endured multiple surgeries. Plus, Rocky Bleier started physical therapy to regain the use of his legs and foot again. Although he managed to rejoin the Steelers, they kept him on injured reserve. It wasn’t until Super Bowl XIII, where he caught the touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw, that he finally got the recognition he deserved for all his hard work.

US Olympic & Paralympic Museum

Erin Popovich

Erin Popovich is a three-time Paralympic swimmer for the United States. She has won 14 career Paralympic gold medals and 19 total. She, too, was born with achondroplasia, which reduced the growth of her limbs. Throughout her childhood, Erin Popovich wore braces to straighten her back and legs and had to undergo several surgeries. As a child, she was interested in sports and participated in horseback riding, basketball, and soccer. This disabled athlete joined the swim team when she was 12, and by age 15, she was competing in the 2000 Paralympic Games.

Erin Popovich has won three gold and three silver medals in her career. In her time in Sydney, she set four world records for the Paralympics, and they selected her as one of the 12012 Torchbearers for the 2002 Winter Olympics torch relay. At the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing, Popovich won an additional four gold and two silver medals. Plus, she broke two world records and two Paralympic records in swimming.


Bethany Hamilton

Bethany Hamilton is an American professional surfer who endured a shark attack in 2003 and survived. The shark bit her left arm completely off, but that didn’t stop her from returning to professional surfing. The shark attack occurred when she was only 13. Bethany Hamilton went for a morning surf. However, while she was lying on her surfboard, talking with her best friend, a tiger shark attacked her, promptly biting off her arm. They promptly rushed her to the hospital, where she received treatment and survived despite losing almost 60% of her blood.

This traumatic event didn’t stop Bethany from getting back on her board and heading back out into the ocean. Only one month after her attack, she was back on the waves. Because of her disability, she had to have a custom board made that was longer and slightly thicker and also had a handle for her right arm. Only 26 days later, Bethany Hamilton entered her first major competition at the start of 2004.


Jim MacLaren

Jim MacLaren, or James MacLaren, was a motivational speaker who won the Ironman triathlon after having his left leg amputated. He started out playing football and lacrosse for his college, Yale University, but his life would change by age 22. While riding his motorcycle, he was involved in an accident resulting in losing his left leg. Jim recovered and then went on to run the marathon in 3 hours and 16 minutes; he also completed the Ironman Kawaii in 10 hours and 42 minutes.

Fate wasn’t done with him yet, however. In 1993, while completing the bike portion of the Orange County Triathlon, he was struck by a van and then collided with a signpost. As a result of his injuries, Jim developed quadriplegia, meaning paralysis in all limbs. The community gathered funds to help MacLaren obtain a van he could drive with his hands. The funds raised were above what was necessary, and they used the rest to start the Challenged Athletes Foundation to help other athletes with disabilities.

House of Sparky

Anthony Robles

Anthony Robles won the 2010-2011 NCAA wrestling championship, despite only having one leg. It’s unclear why he was only born with one leg, but throughout his life, he refused to wear a prosthetic leg for any reason. Because his leg was missing from his hip, Robles decided to take up other exercises to help strengthen the rest of his body. By the time he was in 6th grade, he had set a record for the most pushups by a school member. Anthony Robles definitely impressed everyone!

By the 8th grade, he had started wrestling after watching his older cousins practice. It wasn’t long before he’d developed tremendous grip strength, mostly due to crutches. And because he had an unusually high center of gravity, he could defend himself against any attack, allowing him to focus on more offensive moves to keep the competition on their toes. Feeling inspired by these incredible athletes with disabilities?

Melissa Stockwell

Melissa Stockwell is a swimmer, two-time Paralympic triathlete, and former US Army officer. She competed in three swimming events in the 2008 Summer Paralympics and won a bronze for the 2016 Paralympic Games in the triathlon event. During her sophomore year in college, Melissa Stockwell joined ROTC, and they assigned her to the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas. Stationed as a first lieutenant, she was the first female soldier to lose a limb in the Iraq War.

The loss of her limb was due to a roadside bomb exploding, but she took all that courage and poured it into being a prosthetist for the military, as well as working on the Wounded Warrior Project from 2005 to 2014. Melissa Stockwell competed in several swimming events for the Paralympics and was the flag bearer at the closing ceremonies. Turning to the triathlon, she won the Women’s TRI-2 (above knee amputee) class and continued to defend her title in 2011 and 2012.