Kaleigh Carpenter: one arm, many gifts

Kaleigh Carpenter went 16-5 at No. 4 singles and 15-6 at No. 2 doubles last year during her freshman season at Berry College. Berry College Sports Information

When their daughter Kaleigh was born, Bob and Lisa Carpenter took one look at their baby and were struck with many of the same fears as any new parents.

"She was our first child; she didn't come with instructions; we didn't know what to do," Bob said. "So we just tried to raise her the way you would expect anyone to raise their kids."

It was simple and instinctive and, said Kaleigh 19 years later, "the best thing they could have done for me."

Born with a left arm that ends just below her elbow, Kaleigh said, "I never felt different. That's just how I was raised."

And yet as hard as she fights the perception that she is special, Kaleigh has distinguished herself as a top-flight high school tennis player and, now, a promising incoming sophomore on the Division III Berry College women's team in Mount Berry, Ga.

Still, the fact that Kaleigh was undefeated at No. 3 singles in her sophomore year at Fellowship Christian School (Roswell, Ga.) and was 16-5 at No. 4 singles and 15-6 at No. 2 doubles in her freshman season at Berry is really only half the story.

"From day one, I always tried to put myself in her situation -- would I be able to handle life with the grace she has? And for the life of me, I don't think I could," her father said. "Wherever she goes, she's just a little different; she gets stares and comments they don't think she can hear. To be able to handle that from her earliest memories, with the class she has, shows who she is."

The Carpenters said they did not know their daughter would be born without a full left arm. After she arrived, the doctors, not sure of the cause (they still aren't), told them she could have heart issues.

"It was very scary at first, but once we got through that and she was perfectly healthy, we were fine," Lisa said. "It was a shock initially, but at the same time we thought it could be so much worse and we felt blessed to have her healthy in every other way, though I know it's not minor for her. She's had challenges."

Physically, however, Kaleigh has rarely shown it.

A gifted athlete who received her first prosthetic arm at 6 months to help her crawl and experimented with externally powered myoelectric arms throughout her childhood, Kaleigh now wears an artificial arm only on the tennis court.

"I wore a cosmetic one in elementary and middle school," said Kaleigh, the new kid in middle school after her family moved from Marietta, Ga., to Edwardsville, Ill., and again in high school, when they moved back to Roswell, Ga.

"Looking back, I think it was so dumb, but I was used to it and felt better with it," she said. "I guess I kind of tried to hide [my arm]. A lot of times when I wore the cosmetic one, people didn't notice and I guess I kind of liked that people weren't like, 'Oh my gosh, you have one arm.'

"But once people found out, I wanted them to know. I actually didn't want to hide it, just, 'This is who I am,' and not be awkward about it."

Both parents remember well the day that Kaleigh, who has a 14-year-old sister, Maddie, decided she no longer wanted her cosmetic prosthesis.

"That was a huge deal and we were scared to death for her," Bob said. "She was getting ready to start 10th grade, and the day before she said, 'Hey, I'm not going to wear [the artificial arm] tomorrow.' It was a larger public school and we were concerned about the reactions, what she'd hear. But she came back and said everything was fine and never looked back.

"As a parent, you try to protect your child and expect the worst. But people were better than expected. And she was so steadfast that she didn't care what the ramifications would be."

Competitive and confident

The Carpenters could not have been very surprised because that confidence and determination had already shown itself in Kaleigh at a young age.

"They threw me in anything," Kaleigh recalled of her parents' encouragement. "I played in every Little League and church league with every kid in the neighborhood. I don't think they were ever worried. They just signed me up and I did it."

Still, she surprised them when she not only held her own but excelled in sports that would seem to present a particular challenge, such as basketball, volleyball, swimming and gymnastics, as well as soccer and track.

"What really surprised us was how well she did in swimming," Bob recalled. "Our subdivision had a team and she swam in kindergarten through fifth grade and was very good. She had really strong legs and that was the first time we realized she was a pretty good athlete."

Sports, Kaleigh said, were always an icebreaker.

"People are always unsure of what you can and can't do," she explained, "but if they know you're an athlete and play different sports well, it's like, 'She's not that different. That doesn't hold her back from anything.' "

For whatever reason, tennis seemed to come the most naturally after she picked it up at age 9. "I was always really competitive, and beating people showed me I was just as good as anyone else," she said.

When Kaleigh transferred to Fellowship Christian and showed up at her tennis tryouts in the middle of her sophomore year, Cindy Freemyer, the girls' tennis coach and a science teacher at the school, said she was immediately impressed

"The confidence is what I noticed," she said. "That was what was so remarkable. To come into the middle of the year is tough enough for anyone, but she was just comfortable with who she is. And for us as a small school to have a tournament tennis player was a great thing for us."

Kaleigh would twice be named the tennis team's most valuable player, ran track and cross country, played volleyball, and was student body president as a senior. When her mother, who still sends her daughter articles about inspirational people, read about J.J. Larson, a one-armed tennis player at Virginia Tech (from 2004 to 2008), the family decided to go see her play when the Hokies visited Georgia Tech, about 45 minutes from their home.

"I never thought I would play at that level, and I was really impressed that she did and that she worked really hard to get there," said Kaleigh, who is now thought to be the only one-armed collegiate tennis player in the nation.

"At that point," recalled Lisa, "she had never seen someone play who was missing an arm like she was."

'You see a tennis player'

When Freemyer suggested college tennis to Kaleigh, she was interested. And after visiting Berry, where Freemyer had played for current coach Clay Hightower, she was sure.

"I wanted to make sure I went to the school for the school and not just tennis," Kaleigh said. "But I loved the school and I loved the tennis."

The feeling was mutual.

Naturally, Hightower wondered how Kaleigh served and how competitive she could be in a landscape filled with two-handed backhands.

"There's a big difference when you're hitting a one-hander," Hightower said. "If you put one arm behind your back, you probably lose 40 percent of your pace not having your other hand to pull it back. But Kaleigh moves well. She tries to move around her backhand some, and the only time it hurts her is if her opponent has a strong serve and gets it into her backhand.

"But there have been many opponents who don't even notice she has a prosthetic arm. If you glance out there, you see a tennis player."

The prosthetic hand is smaller than her own -- "like my hand would've been when I was 10" -- and stays in a cupped position to hold the ball and allow her to toss it on her serve. The wrist is rigid and helps more with balance, she said, than anything else.

"I don't know what her opponents thought when they first started playing with her," Freemyer said, "but they quickly found out they were in a fight and very often on the losing end of it."

Now Hightower said he sees leadership potential in Kaleigh.

"She has exceeded my expectations on the tennis court," he said. "I was a little surprised at all she can do, but shame on me for not realizing she would be as functional as she is. She rides a bike, plays ultimate Frisbee -- she finds a way to do everything."

In addition to holding a job scorekeeping at intramural events -- all Berry athletes are encouraged to hold jobs -- Kaleigh has spent her summers as a counselor at Adventure Amputee Camp in Bryson City, N.C. She also has taken mission trips to Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Africa.

Admittedly shy about drawing attention to herself, Kaleigh said she has recently realized the positive example she can set for others like her.

"When I was younger I didn't consider myself any different, so I didn't see how I could be inspirational," she said. "But more recently, in talking with my parents, I have been more focused on showing people [with physical disabilities] that I can still do things and they can, too."

Source of inspiration

For children born without a limb or with one partially missing, the physical adjustment may be easier because they learn to adapt from birth, said Colleen Coulter, Kaleigh's physical therapist at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

"But from an emotional standpoint," she said, "there's no explanation. If you lost your arm in a car wreck or a shark attack or you fell out of a tree or you have cancer, there's a reason and people say, 'Oh, you poor thing.' But throughout life, from preschool to elementary to middle school to high school, anytime you're in a new setting, even when you go to the mall, there are stares and you don't have scars to show. There are always questions and no reasons for it, and sometimes kids get depressed and try to hide from it.

"Kaleigh doesn't. She's comfortable in her own skin. She has made the most of it and puts herself out there. She's the one who teaches all the kids at camp how to weave bracelets and braid hair and make ankle bracelets. If someone needs to learn to tie their shoes one-handed, she's very willing. She's an amazing kid."

Bob and Lisa Carpenter remember those scary days after their first child was born when they told each other there had to be a bigger reason why their daughter was given this challenge.

"God has a plan for her, and I think He has from day one," Lisa said. "I think He has used her to inspire people and to inspire us as parents. It's all good."