Life-Changing Event Leads to Paralympics, Hollywood
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.
Not 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.”
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.”
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.