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Life-Changing Event Leads to Paralympics, Hollywood

April 5, 2018

Jay StyperkJay Styperk remembers watching the baseball fly off his bat like a rocket towards the outfield. He was 12 years old at the time, enjoying little league and being a carefree kid.

That all changed in an instant.

“I hit the perfect double,” Styperk said. “I put the bat down, and I started to run. As I’m running, I remember thinking how far it seemed to first base.”

Styperk collapsed and passed out right there on the field. When he awoke, his eyes opened to a circle of concerned faces hovering over him.

A few days later, an MRI revealed his parents’ worst fear: their son had a tumor on his spine.

Styperk was born with spina bifida, a condition that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly. Complications related to spina bifida can range from minor physical disabilities to the more extreme, including paralysis.

Styperk had a small tumor removed from his back when he was 11 days old but had grown up without any significant effects from that procedure.

Following his collapse on the baseball field, doctors gave Styperk a 97% chance of walking out of surgery after his latest tumor was removed.

“I was one of the 3% that walked in and wheeled out,” he said.

Styperk recounts the excruciating pain he felt in the days following his surgery. Up until that point, he had relied on his legs to do the things he loved the most, like playing baseball. Now he could only blink and talk, and even that wasn’t easy. He remembers waking up to the sight of his sister crying at the edge of the bed. He saw that she had her hand on his foot, but he couldn’t feel it.

In that moment, Styperk knew his life had changed. Doctors told him he’d likely never walk again. He couldn’t even pull himself up in his hospital bed. Naturally, he could only think about one thing.

“I told my mom that I was going to be at baseball tryouts,” he said. “It was January and tryouts were in April. Baseball was my life at that point.”

Let the Games Begin

Like many kids who play sports, Styperk had big dreams of playing professionally. He never considered the unlikelihood of fulfilling that dream until faced with an uncertain future in a wheel chair. Despite his unexpected new reality, Styperk made up his mind right then that he would not resign himself to a pre-determined fate.

Instead, he came up with a plan based on series of goals.

Goal #1: Sit up in bed.

After working with a team of therapists and fighting through intense pain, Styperk sat up in his bed in just three days. He celebrated this victory and moved right along to the next step in his plan.

Goal #2: Get out of bed.

This task was a little trickier. Styperk’s dad built him a chin up bar above his hospital bed. His parents and sister lifted him up every day until eventually he was able to use his arms to lift himself.

“It was painful, awkward and weird,” he said. “I could lift my upper body, but I was still understanding my lower body and what mobility I had. My legs would get caught in the sheets, and it was just uncomfortable.”

Styperk knew it would be a process and a grind, but he was willing to put in the work. After days of struggling, he eventually got out of bed on his own and then began months of physical therapy in preparation for his next goal.

Goal #3: Attend baseball tryouts.

Jay StyperkNot only did Styperk attend baseball tryouts, he made the team. It took a few adjustments on his part to make this happen. First, he transitioned from pitcher to catcher, allowing him to kneel behind home plate while his team was in the field. He also built up enough strength in his legs to stand at home plate when it came time to bat.

“I would swing the bat, fall and then a pinch runner who was even with me would take off to first base,” Styperk said. “It was pretty sweet because the pinch runner was always the fastest kid on the team. I would bunt, and he’d take off.”

Styperk played baseball for two more seasons, enjoying every minute of it as he had before the surgery that left him unable to walk. Nevertheless, things had changed, and he decided baseball would not be a long term fit. He wanted to find a sport with an even playing field. After a little bit of research, he discovered the Paralympic Games, an international multi-sport event involving athletes with a range of disabilities, including spina bifida.

It was the perfect fit. Now he just needed a sport.

In the months following his surgery, Styperk had spent months in the pool working with physical therapists to regain strength and improve his range of mobility. Of course, he’d never been on a swim team. He’d never even been to a swim meet.

It was settled.

Goal #4: Join the national swim team and represent the United States.

“It’s crazy to say it out loud, but in my mind it made sense at the time,” Styperk said.

He tried out for a local club team as the first step to joining the national swim team.

“I didn’t make it,” Styperk said. “I realized this goal would be a lot harder than I thought.”

Jay StyperkThis set back didn’t stop him. Styperk asked the club team coach what he needed to work on, made a list and immediately started practicing for next year’s tryouts. A year later, he made the team.

Next came regionals, then nationals and finally time trials. In 1996, Styperk was selected to be a member of the United States Paralympic team.

“It was in Atlanta,” Styperk said with a grin. “So much for seeing the world.”

Styperk enjoyed the experience of a lifetime competing at the highest level and representing his country. He didn’t medal in 1996, but he came back stronger two years later at the 1998 Paralympic Games in New Zealand.

“I’m proud to say I earned a bronze medal in the 100 meter breast stroke.”

Lights, Camera, Action

As a result of his success at the Paralympic Games, Styperk returned home to college scholarship offers as well as some interesting media opportunities: He appeared on several episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a well-known educational program for children that originally aired on PBS.

He realizes that none of this would have been possible had he not responded the way he did when he suddenly woke up one day to find that he could no longer walk.

“If I wasn’t willing, open and able to adapt and reset my goals, I would have never found or experienced that entire avenue of life that took me from New Zealand to college to Mister Rogers,” Styperk said. “We have to be open to what life gives us.”

Jay Styperk and Mr. Rogers

Styperk welcomed new challenges and opportunities after college. He joined the FedEx Inside Sales team in 2007 and was responsible for maintaining and growing customer relationships in the Columbus and Pittsburgh markets. As with all of his other life experiences, Styperk put in the time, effort and energy to be successful. He earned multiple awards in this role and later set his sights on moving into field sales.

His leadership team explained that a field sales position would present challenges unique to him. Styperk was undeterred. He managed to play baseball without being able to walk. He earned a bronze medal in swimming at the Paralympics. There was no mountain he couldn’t climb.

He accepted a promotion as a business development account executive and a market development sales executive and was assigned to a territory in the Los Angeles area that included Beverly Hills. It was a dream come true. He made sales calls on Rodeo Drive. He had meetings at Sony Studios in Culver City. He crossed paths with celebrities like Adam Sandler.

Despite the glitz and glamour associated with these locations, Styperk did indeed face challenges along the way.

“I had a territory where I thought we should have had someone who was tall, dark and handsome,” Styperk said. “Not short, light and in a wheel chair. I was honored and proud to have this territory.”

Once a month, Styperk visited loading docks and warehouses where his customers were not easily accessible. He wore old work clothes on these days and brought his old wheelchair because he knew he’d have to crawl up steps.

“I needed to get to these customers, and I wasn’t going to ask them to put in an elevator,” Styperk said.

He had a system in place. He’d get out of his chair and sit on the steps. He’d hold on to the railing with one hand, grab his chair with the other and flip it over his head to the top of the steps. It made a noise that everyone within earshot could hear. After a while, the customers became accustomed to it.

“It got to a point where they’d hear that sound and say ‘Oh, FedEx is here.’”

Styperk maintained this routine for years, accomplishing yet another goal and proving that people in wheelchairs could be successful field sales executives.

Today Styperk works as a senior solutions specialist based in his hometown of Pittsburgh. He spends much of his time facilitating sales onboarding classes and coaching new hires.

“Our new hires are dynamic and very impressive people,” Styperk said.

Much like Styperk himself.


Comments

    Felicia Tagivakatini says:

    Short, light, and in a wheelchair, oh please I just read about someone who is tall in life, with blessed bright light in which guides the special wheels that he was blessed to drive and lead the way for others with or without the special wheels. Thank you for being so inspiring.

    Veena Samuel says:

    It was amazing to read about Jay Styperk’s life experience and his dedication and commitment towards his goals and strategies to achieve the same. He is a real hero I must say. Not everyone has this kind of determination. I wish Jay all the very best for his future. He is a real example for people who have self pity over their situations. May God bless him!

    Teressa Brenneman says:

    Such an inspiration. Thank you for sharing your amazing story.

    Cindy Marshall says:

    Jay was superb, motivating & an inspiration to EVERYONE on Elevate 2018! To see & hear Jay made me proud and fortunate to be a part of his team! I hope everyone gets an opportunity to meet this awe-inspiring, positive powerhouse!

    Laurie Vance says:

    What an incredible journey Jay has shared with us! Such an inspiration. Thank you for sharing.

    Karen Stull says:

    Tim, thank you for sharing this amazing story of Jay Styperk. Jay’s determination to overcome is truly an inspiration.

    Karen says:

    Thank you. I was having a difficult time with my physical imitations. You are in inspiration to getting back on a positive path and working on the challenges.

    Vera says:

    You ROCK Jay!

    Cheryl says:

    Oh my what an inspiration he is. Makes me proud to just work for the same company as this young man!

    Danielle Arnold says:

    Jay is an inspiration and a valuable member of the FedEx Team!

    Marilyn Folkes says:

    Styperk, Thank you for sharing your inspiring story. Many physically challenged children and adults who live within impoverished or war-torn areas of the world need to hear your story. Your story will certainly empower them. You are a “master teacher” in the areas of goal-setting, determination, faith, visualization, and actualization. Blessings to you!!!

    Madeleine Landrum-Noe says:

    What a great story about an even greater guy! Thanks for making sure we had our dose of inspiration for the week courtesy of Jay 🙂

    Tracey says:

    An inspiration to all who read his story. Proof that determination and will power can get you anywhere.

    Jennifer Warden says:

    I had the recent pleasure of attending a new hire class hosted by Jay….it’s clear to me he has never let anything stand in his way of being a remarkable human being!

    Charlene Fortune says:

    This story is very inspirational and I enjoyed. I wish Styperk the best and may he continue to reach his goals.

    Rebekah Igafo says:

    What an inspiring story. Determination in full effect. Thank you for sharing your story Jay.

    Terry says:

    A strong young man.
    Wonderful story – proud of a courageous colleague.

    Cindy Curry says:

    Styperk! What an inspiration to everyone! I know that everyone as they get older has complications. They should never give up on anything! Your story shows proof! Best wishes always!

    Charlene Groibler says:

    Styperk Bless you!

    Don says:

    Jay is one of my heroes and an inspiration for me each and every day..

    Rene Moya says:

    Amazing and inspiring! This should be a lesson to all that when you have the right goals and approach anything is possible! Thanks for sharing this wonderful life experience.

    Dana Pinskey says:

    Jay I love everything about your story. I have a 10 year old granddaughter who has TAR Syndrome. She amazes us everyday. She participates in Special Olympics, we don’t have Paralympics nearby. We are in the Pittsburgh area quite often and she would love to meet you.

    Gerri Parker says:

    Wow, what an inspiring story and amazing man !

    Jerry Page says:

    A great story Jay…thanks for sharing!

    Ruby Creary says:

    Awesome, may you continue to shine and be an inspiration to many.

    Robin Day says:

    Such a great story to inspire people. You have had so many successes. Way to go Jay.

    Anonymous says:

    Such an inspiration!!!!

    Peter Zabriskie says:

    You make me proud to work for FedEx Jay. Your determination is the kind of courage we all hope God will bless us with. Thank you for being you! BZ, PZ

    Emmy says:

    Jay…thank you so much for sharing…what an inspiring read to start my week. Go Jay!

    Marie Blosser says:

    Jay — thank you for sharing your inspiration and love for Life! May God bless you in all you do!

    Cynthia Haas says:

    I had the great pleasure to work alongside Jay in field sales. He is and will always be an inspiring man .
    We Miss you 🙂
    CJ

    Sabine says:

    thank you for sharing such real success story !

    ALOK SAHOO says:

    A great story Jay…thanks for sharing!

    Rose Booker says:

    Jay,

    Not only an amazing story, but also an example to all never give up!

    stacey moss says:

    Oh my were do I start I was a supervisor IN THE CAFE at the world headquarters in mphs tn when I frist meet him and he just moved from cali so we use to joke about the move from there to here he is such a joy to be around and always with a smile I no longer work in the café but im a fedex employee now and it is great just miss a lot of people from whq including him GREAT job my friend and continue to be great……….

    Dorris Forstall says:

    What an absolutely amazing story! I hardly know how to respond—Jay, your zeal and tenacity are truly an inspiration to all. This is definitely a story to be shared with anyone who faces challenges—and even for those who do not. You’ve reminded us that much can be accomplished with the will and determination to make one’s goals a reality. Your story will cast a shadow that will reach many and span the universe! Thanks for sharing.

    Kathy Sanders says:

    When I was reading this story it was in awe and amazement. What an inspiring story. Sometimes we complain about things that in comparison to what you went through is minimal to say the least. The issues you conquered and the steps you took to get where you are today is inspirational and so very admirable! Thanks for this wonderful story!

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