The answer was no. Firm and definite.
Tatiana Placencia wanted no part of sitting in a wheelchair. The mere suggestion invoked disdain. It was already difficult enough being a teenaged girl starting high school, never mind one who wore a prosthetic leg.
Like any typical teenager, Tatiana’s independence was critical to her happiness. A wheelchair was an unwanted spotlight.
“I didn’t want to look more disabled,” she said.
But now, three years after her definitive “no,” a wheelchair is helping Tatiana shape her future. This summer, she will move nearly 700 miles from home to The University of Arizona thanks to a wheelchair basketball scholarship, a sport she discovered as part of Valley Children’s Adaptive Sports program, and one that grew her family, opened her personality and made her a collegiate athlete.
“It’s a dream,” Tatiana said.
From Depressed to Inspiring
An athletic scholarship seemed impossible when Tatiana came into the world.
Leticia Placencia’s first child was born with proximal femoral deficiency, a common etiology for amputation in children. It led to Tatiana’s left leg being removed.
Still, Tatiana grew to love sports and tried out for volleyball and basketball in elementary school. But she made neither. The same happened in middle school, discouraging her enough that she considered not trying out in high school.
“She was upset and depressed,” Leticia Placencia said. “She told me, ‘I know I didn’t get picked because of my leg.’ Those three years were a really tough time.”
Acceptance came the next year when Tatiana made the freshman tennis team at Dinuba High School. Shy and quiet then, she also made the basketball team, then the swim team. Coaches and teammates supported Tatiana, and opponents called her an inspiration whether she sat on the bench or finished last in the pool.
Finding Adaptive Sports Through Valley Children's
But high school athletics subscribe to a Darwinian theory – survival of the fittest. Tatiana couldn’t move like the other girls, and she started having back pain trying to keep up.
Around that time, Tatiana and her mother saw a flier for Adaptive Sports while at Valley Children’s Hospital, where she had her leg amputated and had routine visits as she got older. Adaptive Sports offers free recreational and athletic activities for disabled people up to age 21. The only program of its kind in Central California, it provides traditional sports opportunities and others like sled hockey and scuba diving.
Rock climbing was Tatiana’s first venture. But knowing her love for basketball and that she couldn’t keep playing at school, Leticia Placencia suggested wheelchair basketball.
“You could see she was a good athlete,” said Jennifer Crocker, medical director of Valley Children’s rehabilitation center and Adaptive Sports’ founder. “But the wheelchair was a challenge.”
Tatiana didn’t want the new spotlight on her handicap, but after some convincing from mom Leticia, she strapped in and gave it a shot.
“I was able to feel how fast I was,” Tatiana said. “When I played able-bodied, I wasn’t fast, so I was on the bench a lot and my back was killing me. With this, I was as fast as everyone else and playing to my full potential. It amazed me.”
Accepting the wheelchair eventually altered her life in ways she hadn’t imagined.
Earning Her Scholarship
Tatiana excelled in wheelchair basketball and started playing for the Fresno Wheelers, a team open to anyone, including able-bodied people. Soon after, Crocker helped raise funds to send Tatiana to a wheelchair basketball camp at the University of Illinois.
“That’s when I started to really fall in love with it,” Tatiana said.
Arizona started recruiting Tatiana last winter, bringing her to the campus in Tucson, Arizona. She met the coaches and team and learned the program’s successful history – three consecutive National Wheelchair Basketball Association Championship appearances from 2012-14, two titles and a Paralympian.
Before Tatiana flew home from the visit, the team’s coach, Pete Hughes, told her to apply to the school. If she got in, he could offer her a partial athletic scholarship.
With that, Tatiana was a Wildcat.
“I’m very, very, very proud,” Leticia Placencia said of her daughter. “I didn’t see that this could happen before she got involved in wheelchair basketball and Adaptive Sports.
“I’m so happy for her, but at the same time it feels like a part of me is going away. But she’s going to play and learn. I couldn’t be more proud.”
Adaptive Sports' First Homegrown College Athlete
Tatiana is Adaptive Sports’ first homegrown college athlete, meaning she was a Valley Children’s patient since she was a baby and found her sport through the program. That is part of the reason the bond between the Placencias and Jennifer Crocker has become so strong.
Tatiana has babysat her children and they see Tatiana as a big sister. Jennifer calls herself “a proud mama” when talking about Tatiana, and Leticia Placencia sees the Crockers as family.
Jennifer has also seen and helped Tatiana blossom from a shy kid into an outgoing young woman – she even entered the Miss Dinuba Pageant last year. Now, “shy” is never a word anyone uses to describe Tatiana.
For that, she gives plenty of credit to Jennifer and Adaptive Sports.
“I love Jen,” Tatiana said. “She’s helped me with so much, and with Adaptive Sports I’ve played every sport they have. It really helps people see their potential and that they can do things.”