I grew up in a suburb of Chicago called Deerfield, Ill. with two sisters and two brothers. I think that everyone's parents probably tell their children that they are special, but I always knew that I was different. I was born with moderately severe hearing loss in both of my ears. To this day, I cannot hear certain tones and pitches -- even in my voice -- but it was worse growing up.
Remember how in Forrest Gump, young Forrest had back problems and had to wear those braces on his legs? He looked different from the other kids and they never failed to point it out. Kids can be cruel. I spent years in speech therapy and had to wear large hearing aids all the time. I knew that it was important, but all you want to do as a kid is fit in -- and I stood out.
I remember coming home from school crying to my parents that I did not want to go back the next day, but every time I would, they would wipe my tears and tell me that the next day would be better. They pushed me back time after time, and taught me to try my hardest at everything, no matter what others might say.
At some point in elementary school, I realized something. My peers could say whatever they wanted to about my disability, but if I worked hard enough, I could be better than them at something -- maybe I had an advantage after all. My father played in the NBA for 11 years and he passed some of that athleticism onto my siblings and me.
First, it was soccer; then it was basketball, volleyball, track and field. On the field and court, my peers finally wanted me there -- I was actually pretty good. By high school, basketball was a clear strength for me. My sister Tauja and I even helped our Stevenson High School to an Illinois State Championship!
As for my disability, I had ditched my hearing aids and therapy sessions and had focused on reading lips and facial cues to compensate for what I couldn't hear. It was hard. I missed things in class, but I still kept up a B+ average. Picking up on those cues, you learn to laugh even if you miss the punch line and watch your teammates gestures from across the court.
Then, my parents got divorced and my siblings and I were split up. Tauja stayed with my dad in Illinois and I moved with my mom to Duncanville, Texas. By the time I graduated from high school, a lot of my new friends and teammates didn't know that I even had a hearing problem, a small victory for me.
From there, I went to Knoxville to play for the great Pat Summit at the University of Tennessee. One thing that she told me from day one was that only I could write my story. She said that I was special, just like my parents had. She said that I could inspire kids with what I had been able to accomplish and could still accomplish, despite the torment I had been through because of my disability. I have tried to live by that mantra ever since.
At Tennessee, I was a part of a Lady Vols team that won the NCAA Championship. I graduated -- and loved it so much I went back for my master's degree a few years later! -- and am proud to be a Tennessee alumna. After college, my dreams kept coming true. I was selected in the 2002 WNBA Draft by the Indiana Fever and have called Indianapolis my home ever since.
I was chosen to represent our country on the U.S. Women's Olympic Basketball Team and won gold medals with the best players in the country in 2004, 2008 and 2012. I have been an eight-time WNBA All-Star and even won the league's Most Valuable Player honor in 2011, but still something eluded my grasp. Despite all of my accomplishments, I still longed for the one that was missing.
Something about this year's Indiana Fever squad was different from years past. We have had turnover, as all teams do, but a lot of us still remember the WNBA Finals in 2009 when we had it all on the line and could not closeout, losing in Game 5 to the Phoenix Mercury -- and let me tell you, that is a horrible feeling, one that we did not want to feel again. I've battled my injuries and our team certainly has as well. A lot of critics said that we wouldn't even make the playoffs, let alone go on to defeat the Atlanta Dream and the Connecticut Sun to make it to the Finals. They said that the Minnesota Lynx could not be stopped, that we would be swept in the series.
My teammates and I, we came together. We played the best basketball we could and left everything on the court. Honestly, I'm still kind of in shock that we really won -- not surprised, because we worked our tails off and deserve that trophy, but it has been a long time coming. I have been in the WNBA for 12 years and to finally hoist that trophy in front of our home crowd with the most phenomenal teammates after months of hard work and overcoming adversity is just ... amazing. Of all of my accomplishments, I can safely say that this is the best one, the best feeling. We don't want it to end. In fact, my teammates and I talked about it, and we'd like to do it again next year. That trophy -- the first for the Fever -- looks awfully lonely in its case and we'd like to give it some company.
With this championship comes a lot of introspection. I don't think of my hearing loss as a disability anymore. I learned a long time ago to work around it and the fact that other people consider it a disability has really pushed me. Anything you can put your mind to, no matter what obstacles may stand in your way, is attainable through hard work and dedication. I truly believe that and hope that my story can help inspire tomorrow's all-stars in sports, business and philanthropy to really go out and "catch" their stars.