Standing Strong: The Extraordinary Normalcy of Nico Calabria

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From the beginning, Nico Calabria’s parents wanted their son to feel normal. Despite having been born with only a left leg, Nico was expected to pitch in like everybody else in the family, and that included doing chores.

“We were really trying to push the point home,” recalls his mom, Jeanine, “to the point of making him take the garbage out with a harness around his waist. He would’ve been in third grade. That one didn’t really work.”

Most of their other attempts did, though. At 13, as part of a family-tradition “coming-of-age adventure,” as he calls it, Nico became the first person to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro on crutches. He’d never been a mountain climber or even a hiker, but that was the point: “You learn a lot about yourself,” he explains. His older brother, Kyle, went caving in Belize; his younger sister, Maya, taught English in India.

“We told them, no drinks with umbrellas in them,” Jeanine says, of the family’s approach to vacation activities.

Calabria, 19, has never been a sit-beside-the-pool kind of guy. At Concord-Carlisle (Mass.) High he was the captain of the wrestling team and played varsity soccer, scoring a bicycle-kick goal that his mom put on YouTube and that has gotten more than 1.7 million views. Calabria took a year off after high school to intern at SideStix, the company that makes the crutches he uses, and to work as a teacher’s assistant at his high school and coach kindergartners in gymnastics—his team is the Hot Dogs. He’ll attend Colorado College in the fall. He signed on with Powerade to star in a two-minute short that premiered at the recent Kicking and Screening soccer film festival in New York City and will be shown during the lead-up to the World Cup. In between, he trains for the 2014 Amputee Football World Cup, which will be held in Culiacán, Mexico, in November. He doesn’t feel particularly disabled.

“When you’re born with a handicap,” says Calabria, “you’ve never known anything different, so you just do things the way you do them.”

For him, that has almost always been on crutches. From age two and a half until five, he used a prosthetic, but since he lacks a hip, the device wrapped around his torso and he had to operate it by swinging his body. So his parents offered him an alternative: He could use forearm crutches instead—but he would have to choose one or the other, because his spine had to center itself over either one or two legs, and it couldn’t keep going back and forth.

“The big choice I had to make,” he says, “Which I didn’t really understand at age 5—is I’m giving up looking like I fit in for being more mobile and happier. Yes, getting stared at is annoying, but playing soccer is one of my passions.”

It was an easy decision for him. His parents hesitated a little more.

“Having a child with a congenital limb deficiency is very rare,” Jeanine says, “And it’s usually the lower arm. So doctors can’t really tell you what to do for sure. We just had to watch Nico and get our cues from him.”

It was immediately apparent that they’d made the right decision. He took off.

“My parents used to call my crutches my wings,” he says.

Since that day, Calabria has been able to do just about anything he’s wanted to. There’s no organized amputee soccer in the U.S. below the national team level, and most of his teammates are adults with jobs who are scattered around the country, so he practices with able-bodied friends—he’s going to ask to work out with the team at Div. III Colorado—to keep himself in shape. He scored a goal in his first international cap, which he says is his proudest moment in sports. He has more than fulfilled his parents’ goal for their son to have a normal life.

And he still takes out the trash.