Jordan Levin’s guest today is David Figueroa, who shares his story and journey of being diagnosed with cerebral palsy since birth. Join in the conversation to hear David’s many struggles in the education system, and as well his successes as a former three-sport athlete and three-time state champion cyclist, and a current middle school teacher with CP. He shares his story with others around the world, to show that there is a light among all the challenges behind it. “If I can do it, so can you!!!” Tune in!
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Succeeding Through Cerebral Palsy With David Figueroa
I have David here with me. He is going to share his story with us and his journey of being diagnosed with cerebral palsy since birth, highlighting various struggles in the education system, his successes as a former three-sport athlete, three times the champion cyclist and a middle school teacher with CP. He shares his stories with others around the world to show that there is a light among all the trenches behind it. Welcome, David. It’s an honor to have you on the show.
Thank you. I appreciate it. We are collaborating. This is Jordan. He’s a podcaster, motivational speaker, owner of a CrossFit business and wakesurfer. I also like to mention that his show is called All Good Things Start With You. I’m looking forward to learning about his journey and how he’s overcome all these obstacles despite his impairment. We’re going to have a good time. I’m excited.
This is a unique situation and we could both be in this together and share our stories.
To start out, give me a brief rundown of your diagnosis. How are you diagnosed with your hearing impairment?
I was born three months premature, 11 inches and 31 ounces. This was back in 1976. This was before they tested for hearing. During those first four months of my life, I was in a hospital on a respirator. During those four months, I had complicated potentially life-ending surgeries. Doctors only gave me ten chances of survival and through those four months, I made it. However, to fast forward just a little bit, doctors told my parents that I might not be able to walk, I might not be able to speak and I might have some physical disabilities.
What happened was my parents are so focused on my physical development that perhaps they missed the hearing portion of it. They didn’t find out about my hearing loss until I was 2.5 years old. Babies at that age are already hearing and practically speaking. At that age, I wasn’t. When we found out about hearing loss, my parents were devastated. They were like, “What do we have to do? What are the options?” That began the journey of what’s the best route for me to go. My parents chose to teach me how to speak and listen. That was a long journey from that day forward.
The best thing you can do is to keep moving forward.
The fact that your parents are willing to find any way that they could do to help you. Nowadays, you have so much adaptive technology and assistance for you that makes it easier to go about life. You, growing up, it must have been slightly difficult to go through your life knowing that you have not one diagnosis but two diagnoses. To go on that, how was it growing up with you? Did you struggle in school? Was school normal for you? Did you have a lot of friendships?
Fortunately enough, I was seventeen when I was diagnosed with ADHD. Growing up in school was difficult because not only was I ADHD but I didn’t have any understandable speech and yet, I’m not able to hear. The formative years of schooling were quite complicated. The best way to put this in perspective, you’ve got a boy sitting in a classroom trying to read with the teacher but if the teacher turned their back to write something on the blackboard, I will never get it.
My parents came up with this concept of at the end of each day at the school. My mom would say to the teacher, “Teacher, what did you guys do today?” She wrote down word for word, everything that we did in school. We would then go home and my dad would come home from work. The three of us will sit down and go over every single thing that was taught in that classroom again until I was able to comprehend what was being said. That was just my elementary school experience.
To answer your question about friendships, I was pushed into the woods. I was pushed to adapt and be one like everybody else. I was taught from the beginning to be assimilated into work in the schools. I went to elementary. Luckily, in middle school and high school, I still have my core group of five friends that I have had since elementary school. If you were to ask my group of friends how I was, they didn’t treat me any different than anybody else. I was one of the boys hanging out. I never asked for them to treat me any differently.
That’s the whole point of why my parents wanted me to not think of my disability as a disability but to think of my disability as an ability to be able to share and not downplay it. It doesn’t matter what disability you have. It’s how you get the people you are with comfortable with you and they won’t even think anything of it. I’m not going to put words in your mouth but I have a feeling that it might have been a similar experience with you or maybe not.
For me, it was similar but a little bit different. I’m excited to share about that later on. I know you went through schooling. I’m not sure if you do but I feel like you have your degree since you’ve accomplished all these things. Tell me how you got into CrossFit, motivational speaking and all these ventures. How was it for you getting into these ventures?
For me, I have such a great drive to be the best I could be given my abilities. We talk about all Good Things Start With You. That is all about taking action. Based on what I’m getting at, by the time I graduated from Michigan State, I knew I didn’t want to work for anybody because I grew up in an entrepreneurial family where my father is an optometrist but he’s been an optometrist for many years. During that time, he will always try different side hustles or side businesses and I was able to see that. I emulated that for me to have the drive. Keep in mind, the drive comes from me scrolling up with the hearing loss and having to overcome these objections and understanding that never taking no for an answer is important because a lot of time when we hear the word no, what do we think? We back up and we say, “That’s it. We can’t do anything.” No. That’s a load of whatever.
It comes down to get someone who has to always be asking questions. Backing up to answer your question, I got into CrossFit because I was training clients one-on-one but I’m looking for something that I could expand my horizons and CrossFit fit the bill when I saw what was going on. I saw the green light. I opened up in my parents’ two-car garage in October of 2009. I had no idea, years later, that I would be in a 6,000 square-foot workout facility helping people look good, feel good and be a better version of themselves.
I am not going to say that I’m easygoing but I am easily approachable. I can empathize with a lot of people because of my story. Even your story being in fitness is when they see what you’ve had to go through. They say to themselves, “If he can do it, I can do it.” I’m not pushing this on people. It’s just my image of who I am. I love helping people. My motto has always been, “If I can help one person a day, I’m happy.”
The fact that you’ve made it this far is incredible. I know that in doing your show sticks out, All Good Things Start With You. Where did you come up with the name and the idea? How did that become a part of you and your audience as far as your show?
For me, the biggest thing that I always tell people about is taking the negative connotation of when someone says no, we tend to hold back. To me, it’s always about how can I get to the point? What I’m getting at is if I ask you your opinion on something and I ask somebody else their opinion on something then I ask a third person their opinion. I’m getting information. When I sit down and I say, “Am I going to make the decision? Yes or no?” Ultimately, who makes that decision? You do.
I’ve realized, “I don’t have to be successful in any endeavor.” It doesn’t matter what you’re doing. It could be personal, family or relationships. It could be anything. All Good Things Start With You allow you to figure this out like, “If I want something to happen, that is up to me.” The reality is, now is the time to take action and not in 1 or 2 years. If you have an idea or you have a concept and it’s something you want to try, try it. What’s the worst that can happen?
I can totally agree with you and relate. What’s the reward if you’re not willing to take the risk in anything you do? It seems like you’ve gone through everything head-on. Even though it’s been difficult in some aspects, you’ve still been able to find a way to adapt and overcome. There’s always a saying that I was trying to tell people, “Improvise, adapt and overcome.” You’ve been able to do all three things and become successful. To wrap everything up, how can people find you as far as social media, learn more about you and get to know you better?
You can do anything you want to do. Don’t pity yourself all the time.
For me, the best way is by going to my website, JordanLevin.com. You can email me at [email protected]. My Instagram is Jordan Levin and Facebook is Jordan Levin. LinkedIn is also Jordan Levin. I’m quite accessible. If you shoot me an email, I’ll try to respond to you. It is easier if you’re able to send me a text. It’s on my website. Send me a text. I’m happy to help. If you have any events coming up and you’re struggling with anything, I have a program called Change the Course of Your Life with These 10 Good Habits. The number one most important habit that I practice is gratitude. Gratitude is the most important one out of my ten habits. What I’ve been coaching people on for years especially in the fitness industry, is how to be appreciative and develop good habits for their entire life.
I’ve enjoyed knowing your story and your journey. I always say with my slogan, “If I can do it so can you.” You have that. You’ve proven to people, “If I can overcome these multiple impairments and all this in my life then there’s no excuse, you can do it, too.” There are people out there that have no disabilities that don’t push themselves. Yet, you see people like ourselves trying to do everything that we can to become successful. It’s an awesome story. I appreciate you being on the show. Thank you, Jordan. You guys can find this episode on iTunes, Spotify or any other major podcasting platform. I will put it up on YouTube as well. Thank you, Jordan. Remember everyone, if I can do it so can you.
I love you. Thank you. That was a blast. I hope we can do it again soon.
For sure. I’m excited.
David, not only were you born with CP but you’ve also experienced being put into special education as well as mainstream education. Please tell our readers a little bit about your formative years because you’ve had quite a journey.
My formative years were pretty rocky especially starting out in education. When I was very young until I was the age of eight years old, I couldn’t read, write or walk. I struggled. As far as the education they thought, “He can’t do any of these things so we’ll place him in special ed.” This was at the time where my biological mom was still around. She was a young mom raising two children. One of them having CP. It’s not always easy but I always had very supportive parents. The part of my biological dad and my step-mom, all three of them worked together to help me grow and become this individual who has become successful when it comes to education or anything that I’ve always pursued.
I appreciate that because we have the similarity that none of us backed up, having the right support system and being fortunate to have your biological parents and step-mom to be able to do that. That’s a powerful thing because you saw that and they had allowed you to succeed. In your education experience as a child, how did it impact your desire to become educated?
I was always told when I was younger, “You’re never going to amount to anything.” I was told by teachers directly in Puerto Rico, “You’re too slow. I don’t want you in my classroom. You shouldn’t be here.” All these negative things but the one thing that I was always told is, “You have to believe in yourself, embrace your disability, take all that negativity and use that as motivation to push yourself forward.” It never let it bring me down because the minute you let people bring you down with their comments and what they say is the moment that you fail. You have to keep moving forward.
I’m with you on that one. I have a very similar story that I didn’t mention before is when I was in elementary school. The principal of that elementary school did not want me in that school. My parents said, “No, we’re not going to let that happen.” The truth of it is, in order for that to happen, my parents had to sign a waiver to waive the right to use the IEP, which is a specific program to follow. My parents have to sign up for what we need to avoid to do that. That allowed my parents to have 100% control of that situation. It wasn’t easy but that’s an interesting thing because when we’re told no, we don’t know what that means. We just have to say to ourselves, “What’s next? How did we get past it?” For me, I’m not going to say it came easy but I knew within the time.
When it comes to the school system, they’re great. Don’t get me wrong. School’s great. Everything about education is great but sometimes you have those few rotten apples that you deal with, that are always trying to bring you down. The best thing you can do is to keep moving forward. Don’t let their negativity get to you and prove them wrong through your success and education through your grades and the way that you present yourself. If you present yourself as a happy positive person, you can’t imagine how many times I have had people that have been negative to me in the education system and when they see me so positive and happy, they get so worked up. They’re like, “You’re not supposed to be like this. You’re supposed to be miserable. You’re supposed to hate yourself, hate your disability. Feel sorry for yourself. Why are you not like this?” There is no reason to be like this.
To me, there is no normal anymore. There never was a normal. Too many people especially the education system have this what you call perceived notion of what we need to be whether it’s smart or physically active. It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s always this expectation that everybody gets compared to all these different people. As we know, each one of us is our own unique individual. We have to find our own strengths within ourselves, how to use those strengths and don’t worry about anybody else.
I feel the same way. You got to keep pushing forward without a care in the world.
It took me a long time to understand that part of not worrying about what other people think and just focus on what you do and how you do it. You mentioned your biological parents and your stepmom but who or what was your driving force to keep pushing forward? Do you think that it’s an attribute, a part of you or someone or something instilled in you to have that?
As I was growing up, unfortunately, I had struggled with a tragedy in my family. My biological mom ended up passing away when I was eight years old. Fortunately, something great came out of it. My stepmom stepped in the day of my biological mom’s funeral. She said, “This child has a future but without me in it, I don’t think you’ll be able to live a normal life.” My biological mom passed away when she was 23 and my stepmom was the same age. At 23, she made the decision to take care of me, raise me and gave me the life that I would possibly never have because to raise a child with a disability, sometimes takes a tag team.
I consider her my full mom because she’s raised me for my whole life. My father and her were able to be my driving forces for different characteristics. My mom now was more of the tough love kind of mom. “I don’t want you to feel sorry for yourself.” My petty box is broken. “You can do anything you want to do. Don’t pity yourself all the time. If somebody tells you no, just keep pushing forward. Don’t let them bring you down.” They’re giving you good advice and to help you out in life.
That is so powerful because being fortunate to have that mom in your life to give you that tough love is astronomical. I wish there were more of those around for those others who are struggling. I always tell people, “If you can’t find within your family, reach out to other people. Feel free to ask others for help.” That is something that people tend to hold back. They are afraid to ask for help. I always say, “It’s okay to ask for help and it will help you keep the way you want.”
Be willing to do anything to be successful.
As I was growing up my mom would always be there. She was there when I took my first steps. My biological mom’s dream was to see me walk but unfortunately, she missed it by three months. I walked three months after her funeral but I knew that she would always see what I was doing. I knew that she saw me walk. I wasn’t too worried about that. I’m glad I took those first three steps because those first three steps started defining my journey and where would I be now.
It comes down to, all good things start with you. You made the decision to take those first three steps. How did you get involved in sports? You’re such an accomplished athlete.
I got involved in sports while living in Puerto Rico at the time. I started around the age of eight with baseball. They didn’t have a league with kids with different disabilities at the time. My mom now started this league along with several individuals that were wanting to partner up and start the league together. That’s how I got involved. I was the poster child of the league so everybody knew who I was. I started that trend of bringing kids with disabilities together so that they can play sports. The thing with sports and disabilities is, it allows those kids that have difficulty being social outside of sports or any realm to be able to be social, meet other kids, have fun, be physically active and be a normal kid for once. Not having to worry about being judged.
You got a mother that is incredible. I can relate to that because we both have the setup and our parents were incredible. Now I can see why you were so involved in sports because you became their poster child. Once you became their poster child, you were just like, “Let me just keep going. Let me show these people what you could do with our mental or physical disabilities.” That’s incredible. How did you get into triathlons?
I got into cycling while I was playing baseball. I got into that when I moved to Florida which was many years ago. I got into the Special Olympics. I competed in Florida in baseball and in cycling. I got into that because at the time my idol was Lance Armstrong. I was a big fan of his and then I started enjoying cycling. I wanted to model myself to be like him, being a competitor from the competition aspect of it. Even wearing the same gear that he wore. Hearing the story about how he overcame cancer was awesome.
I always wanted to model myself like him but at the end of the day, I wanted to be my own individual, stand out and let people know, “This is who David is. He’s a cyclist. He’s a hard worker. He’s willing to see it first.” I compete to the best of my ability. That’s how I’ve won the three state championships that I’ve won as a cyclist. I also became a Paralympic prospect back in 2011. I had Paralympic scouts see how I was and they invited me to try out to the Paralympic organization up in Tampa.
That’s incredible. The fact that you didn’t let your physical limitation bother you. For both of us in that sense, when you see the goal or the end result of what you want to accomplish, you can reverse engineer what you need to do to be able to get at that point. The fact you did that is incredible. How important is it for those with physical disabilities to implement movement and exercise in their lives and why?
To me, it’s extremely important because as someone with CP, if you’re not physically active, the diagnosis gets worse. As you age, if you’re not physically fit, a lot of symptoms that you have now can get progressively worse. I started working out at a very young age around fourteen. While your diagnosis doesn’t go away, working out reduces the process of decline in your body. The wear and tear slow down and then as long as you work out, you’re able to slow down the process. If you keep maintaining it, you have a better chance of having a longer shelf life. You’re not at risk of ending up in a wheelchair or developing another impairment where it impairs you to walk or do your daily living task.
I started that because around 14 or 15 I went to a doctor and at the time I wasn’t working out at all. I was doing my own thing, playing video games all day and being lazy. The only thing I did was play sports but I wasn’t physically active. I let the sports get shaped but I wasn’t in shape outside of the sport. My doctor said, “You have to change your lifestyle or else you could end up back in a wheelchair.” That was a wake-up call for me and that allowed me to sit back, reflect and figure out what I had to do to improve myself physically to where I’m at now.
You’re the one who took the action and took your doctor’s advice. You realized that there was something you had to do. I know it was not easy and I can imagine how many times you had to try any exercise or any movement to be able to do it. The fact that you’re able to get out and bike and do that is quite incredible. What’s the most rewarding part of being in middle school teaching?
The most rewarding part is when you hear students tell you thank you for taking the time to help them, for showing that they have more potential than what they think they have because when you’re a middle school student, there’s a lot of self-doubts. You feel like you’re not good enough at doing something or that a lot of your peers judge you a lot. Over the last years as an assistant teacher, I’ve seen a lot of that but with the right mindset, direction and support system especially if you’re a child that doesn’t have it at home but you have it at school, take advantage. Take this opportunity to empower and motivate the student and tell them that they’re worth it and they’re appreciated. That every little thing that they do very well deserves a celebration.
Having that mindset and be able to teach that to the students is probably the best thing that a teacher could do for the students. Keep going that and don’t stop. What do you do to unwind and decompress with all the things you have going on? How do you keep yourself grounded?
I usually like to be outdoors. Whether it’s taking a hike and enjoying the weather if it’s not too hot because we all know it gets ridiculously hot in Florida. I love being outdoors. I’m also a gamer. I love to play PC and PlayStation games. I’m one of those individuals. I love hanging out with my friends and my family whenever I get the chance.
Of all the things you do, what brings you the most joy? What makes you happy?
First and foremost, my family and then my students. Especially when I get to see them every day and get to see them be successful. Also interviewing individuals like yourself especially on my podcast. Getting to know your story and experiences. What brings me joy is hearing that positivity come out of every individual I meet because if there’s one thing we have in common, it’s that we’re willing to do anything to be successful.
That was dynamite and powerful. That’s the summary of everything, what are you most grateful for?
My family. The fact that I’m alive and healthy despite the situation we’re in. Also, the fact that I’m able to entertain, inspire and motivate a lot of individuals. Not just close to me but around the world. Not many people are in my situation so I feel very fortunate. I feel like that would be it.
Thank you so much, David, for sharing that. For those reading, we’ve got a wonderful individual here in David. I want you to know that they are between David and me, we know what it takes to get things done and to inspire people to survive. To summarize, nothing is beyond our reach. If you set your mind to do something you can make it happen. Thank you, David. It’s been an absolute pleasure. Hopefully, we could do this again and see where we’re at.
I would like to, for sure.
- Davi Figueroa
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