By Alaa Abdeldaiem
There was a moment in Kyle Maynard’s life when his future was filled with uncertainty.
Growing up, the Fort Wayne, Indiana, native had a mind full of dreams. He’d be a police officer, he told his teachers in preschool. A firefighter. An NBA star, one that would lead his home-state Pacers to a championship.
But as a quadruple amputee—a result of being born with a condition known as congenital amputation—Maynard slowly began to realize his dreams may not have been as realistic as he had once imagined them. He stopped asking himself what he wanted to do with his life; that wasn’t the question anymore.
It was about whether he would have one at all.
“All I wanted then was to live an ordinary life,” Maynard said. “I didn’t know if I could have even that, and I had a lot of fear about what would become of my future.”
Today, Maynard’s life is far from where he imagined it to be. After navigating through his disability and learning to become as independent as possible, Maynard is an athlete, an author, an entrepreneur and a motivational speaker.
He’s an ESPY award-winner and a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He’s a daredevil who doesn’t shy away from adventure, a mountaineer who became the first man ever to crawl his way 19,341 feet up Mt. Kilimanjaro.
He’s here, ready to embark on another journey to the top.
Surviving Early Struggles
A life full of uncertainties can be traced to a single event from the very start: that Kyle Maynard lived at all.
Despite no signs during early tests, Maynard was born with congenital amputation, a condition that stems from fibrous bands constricting the fetus’s membrane. His arms end at the elbows, his legs at his knees.
The condition is rare; only one in 2,000 children are born with some form of the amputation. Severe cases like Maynard’s are even rarer, as most quadruple amputees die due to miscarriage or stillbirth.
Grateful that their son was alive, Scott and Anita Maynard were determined help him to do just that—live.
“From day one, my parents told me I wasn’t disabled,” Maynard said. “They told me that the world wasn’t going to tailor to my every need, and so very early on, I was forced to struggle and learn to do things on my own.”
Nothing came easily. Learning how to crawl, hold a spoon, open a cap, play video games—everything for Maynard had its struggles, a reality that would lend itself to a period of frustration.
Joey Leonardo, Maynard’s neighbor, classmate and friend for 18 years, has seen those frustrations firsthand.
“Everything in Kyle’s life that he has had to do, there was no model for it,” Leonardo said. “He couldn’t look to someone else to copy them. There were always challenges, and that lead to a lot of trial and error for Kyle.”
Maynard never quit. Soon, holding a pencil using the crook of his arms was second nature. Typing was no longer a problem either, a skill so rehearsed that Maynard now types 50 words a minute.
In a preschool in Fort Wayne, Indiana, that was designated for disabled children, Maynard began fostering dreams of a normal future. He wanted to solve crime, save lives, play basketball.
But his “pursuit of normalcy” was shaken once Maynard moved just outside of Atlanta when he was 11. Beyond Leonardo, many of his classmates stared and questioned. Maynard had always wanted to be an athlete, but no longer was he sure that was a possibility.
Uncertainty suddenly loomed over the once-sure-willed pre-teen, and his self-image suffered as a result.
“It’s difficult for kids with disabilities to go into a new environment, and it was a struggle for me at first, too,” Maynard said. “All of a sudden, and probably for the first time, I was perceiving myself as disabled, and that took a toll on my self-image.”
But the perception Maynard’s parents had of their son remained the same. He was normal, and as long as his family believed he was capable of doing what he wanted to, Maynard believed it, too.
Maynard decided to take on wrestling and weight training, and just like everything else he learned to do for the first time, his first experiences had their challenges. Maynard lost every match for two years straight, raising voices of sympathy and concern from onlooking spectators.
Maynard, again, refused to quit. By his senior year, he had found a way to win 36 varsity matches. He was named GNC’s “World’s Strongest Teen” by bench pressing 240 pounds 23 times, awarded an ESPY in 2004, and was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame just a year later.
In 2009, he successfully lifted 420 pounds and became the first quadruple amputee to compete as an amateur mixed martial arts fighter.
“That’s Kyle,” Leonardo said. “His determination exceeds anyone else’s.”
Motivating on Mountains
Leonardo has heard Maynard tell his story over 500 times.
After Maynard’s accomplishments made headlines, Leonardo became his agent, of sorts. That meant scheduling Maynard’s interviews, arranging his public speaking engagements, and critiquing his friend’s every move.
Yet, even after constantly listening to Maynard recall his childhood for his audiences, Leonardo says the story still never ceases to captivate.
“When you see anything 500 times, you’re going to get bored, but with Kyle, that’s not at all how it feels,” Leonardo said. “You listen to him speak and think, ‘Wow. I can do that.’ No one’s struggles are the same, but it makes you willing to fight through your own.”
Leonardo is not alone. Since graduating high school and leaving the University of Georgia to pursue public speaking, Maynard has shared the stage with some of the world’s greatest minds in business, politics, sports and motivation alike. His message, “No Excuses,” was reaching thousands.
But something was still missing. Another period of regret and uncertainty had returned to Maynard’s life, this time after being denied the opportunity to serve on the country’s front lines because of his amputations.
“My dad was in the army, and I felt like I had this calling inside of me to do the same thing,” Maynard said. “I fell into a really hard time in my life, and I felt like a fake. I was supposed to be motivating people, but I myself didn’t know what my life was all about.”
It was during such a low when Maynard was approached by two military police that had suffered severe burns in a wreck.
The servicemen described their own days spent questioning their futures, how they laid in hospital beds and made the decision to end their lives before hearing Maynard’s story on television later that day.
From then on, Maynard knew exactly how he would fulfill his longing to serve. He visited the Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, D.C, a place that has served as temporary home for thousands of U.S. Army veterans. He became a CrossFit instructor, working with wounded soldiers on navigating their fitness routines to meet their personal needs.
And in 2012, Maynard decided to crawl 19,341 feet to the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro while carrying the ashes of a fallen soldier, a feat that he hoped would inspire veterans who were struggling.
Earlier today I met another unbelievable hero– Navy EOD tech Taylor Morris. Taylor became the 5th quadruple amputee to survive his injuries on May 3rd… but the amazing thing with Taylor isn’t what happened to him, it’s the resilient wrestler mindset he’s got going for him to get back home. His website is http://taylormorris.org/ and I highly recommend reading some of the stories on his blog.
“So many men and women come back home from their service and they’re lacking a sense of purpose and direction and think, ‘What do I do with my life now?’” Maynard said. “I wanted to send a message that you are creating your own life, that going out and doing things like this is more effective than putting a bandaid over things or retreating to painkillers.”
By the fifth day on the mountain, however, Maynard was badly hurting. Downhill slopes and flat surfaces left his limbs battered, and Leonardo wasn’t sure how much more Maynard could withstand.
“All of a sudden we were uncertain and thinking, ‘Holy crap. What are we doing?’” Leonardo said. “But Kyle didn’t complain. Even in situations when we thought we were almost there and ‘almost there’ turned out to be several hours, he refused to quit until he reached the top.”
And when he did, Maynard’s emotions took over. He had once again defied the odds, accomplishing a feat some called him crazy for doing and honoring a fallen soldier while he was at it.
“It was the greatest honor in my life,” Maynard said. “That sense of service I was missing from my life? I found it then.”
Reaching for New Heights
Maynard isn’t finished. He may never be.
On Jan. 30, Maynard will travel to take on the highest mountain in South America, the 22,840 foot peak of Mt. Aconcagua. Once he gets to the top—and he will get to the top, he says—he’ll reflect on life, just as he did atop Kilimanjaro.
“It’s crazy to think how my dream to be a police officer or a firefighter or an NBA player, even though those things never manifested, brought my life to where it’s at right now,” Maynard said. “All of this happened because of the struggles I’ve had to endure.”
Leonardo is amazed, too. If someone had told him his friend, a quadruple amputee, would climb one of the world’s highest summits 18 years ago, he may have hesitated at the thought of it.
“Looking back to see what Kyle has accomplished at 29 years old, the progress he’s made through life’s challenges, is amazing,” Leonardo said. “It makes me so excited to think what more we can do with these next ten years.”
Where Maynard will be in a decade is still undetermined. He may be getting ready to embark on a trip to the 20,310 peak of Denali, North America’s highest summit. Or maybe he’ll go back to wrestling, to mixed martial arts, to weight training.
Wherever he is and whatever he’s doing, Maynard knows it won’t come easily. There will be more struggles, more trials. But regardless of the challenges ahead, Maynard won’t stop.
That much he knows for sure.
If you’d like to learn more about Kyle Maynard, visit Kyle-Maynard.com.