Name: Sharon Stolberg
Hometown: Clearwater, Florida
Job: Special education teacher
Sharon Stolberg is no stranger to rough roads.
At 19 months old, she was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that affects the joints. As a result, Stolberg suffered severe cartilage deterioration, which caused her spinal cord to compress. By age 7, she was in a wheelchair.
"I always knew I needed to get out of that chair," Stolberg says.
At age 19, following decades of medications, cortisone injections and surgeries — including a cervical neck fusion and two hip replacements — Stolberg finally did leave that chair.
Her life has been an adventure ever since.
Stolberg soon found her way to adaptive sports, recreational sports that allow for modifications to help level the playing field, so to speak, for people with disabilities. She is now a cyclist, paddler, water-skier and climber.
This summer, Stolberg completed her third summit of Wyoming's famous Devil's Tower. And this month, she and two friends will travel to Spain to participate in a disability-centered trip to hike, push or roll a 62-mile stretch of the Camino de Santiago, a roughly 500-mile pilgrimage through the northern part of the country.
The long and hilly trek won't be easy, but Stolberg is more than prepared.
>> I used to work really hard to mask my limitations. I grew up in the '80s when people with disabilities were kept in the closet. When I was a kid, I was picked on. I was an outsider. Climbing brought me out of that.
>> I was really apprehensive [about climbing] at first. I can't reach above my head. I can't move my neck. But I thought, sure, I'll try it. It was a way to push myself. I just wanted to see if I could.
>> Climbing is [the sport] I love the most. It's about problem-solving: How do I make my body fit with what I've got? How do I make this rock work with me? It's a puzzle that changes with every move. Your only goal is to keep moving up.
>> Accessibility is the hardest part for me. I have to have support to hike in to a lot of places. Some places, like T-Wall, I can't get to. It's such an intense hike in and hike out and it's dangerous for me. You'd have to keep me on a leash and harness or I'd kill myself. The New River Gorge, though, has some awesome climbing that I can access pretty easily.
>> [Devil's Tower] is a 650-foot climb. It takes the average person about four to six hours. For me, it takes 10. We started at 3:30 in the morning. The sun comes up at 5:30, and the tower is vertical, so it's blazing hot and there's no place to hide. You get cooked quick.
The Camino de Santiago: A tradition for the ages
The Camino de Santiago is described by Outside Magazine as “Medieval Europe’s version of a thru-hike.”
Basically, it is a vast network of footpaths criss-crossing Europe, all leading to Spain’s Santiago de Compostela, the holy city in which Catholic martyr St. James is said to be buried.
For centuries, believers have made the pilgrimage. Today, hikers make the journey for both spiritual and recreational reasons. The paths can range from 60 miles to more than 600.
Stolberg and her team plan to cover a 62-mile stretch, which will qualify them to receive a compostela, a “pilgrim certificate.” The begin their trek on Sept. 29. Learn more at tinyurl.com/IllPushYouStolberg.
>> I dabble in water-skiing, too. I do an adaptive form. I don't do it on my feet; I use something called a "sit-ski." It eliminates the shock from my legs. You can still crash and burn like everyone else. You just do it while sitting on your butt.
>> I participate, volunteer and am on the board for SPARC (a Chattanooga chapter of Disabled Sports USA). I get as much thrill out of watching someone climb or cycle for the first time as I do when it's me getting on a new route. Adaptive sports is my passion.
>> Adaptive sports is a huge, underrated need. Gear is too expensive. The cost of a handcycle is at least $2,000 and most people with disabilities can't afford that. You can't get insurance to cover it because it's considered recreation. But think how important recreation is for a kiddo — to give that normalcy to somebody.
>> Right now, the biggest challenge [of the Camino de Santiago] trip is trying to find a wheelchair without dropping an arm or a leg. It has to be something stable, with off-road tires, and it has to be able to take a beating. I don't want to drop $2,000 for a chair for a week.
>> My teammates are Carley [Pearson] and Leslie [King]. Carley is a paraplegic. She was injured in the line of duty as a firefighter. Leslie is our able-bodied person.
>> Luckily, I can get up and walk some of it — but only so much. We're going to try to do 10-15 miles a day. I'm 4-foot-6, so it takes me three strides for everybody's one. I think that will be one of the biggest challenges for me: wanting to walk more than I'm able to.
>> People always told me, "Your body isn't going to work, so you're going to have use your brain." Well, that obviously hasn't come to pass.