Sheila Radziewicz, BA’01 - The folks at Bruce McCorry’s Martial Arts Academy in Peabody, Massachusetts, get their share of crank calls. May I speak to Mr. Miyagi. That sort of silliness.

So it’s no surprise that instructor Sandra LaRosa was skeptical that a caller named Sheila, if that was even her real name, would show up for her appointment.

“I thought it was another jokester,” LaRosa said of the phone call three years ago.

This was no joke. It only sounded like one.

Sheila Radziewicz began by telling Sandra that she’d taken three years of martial arts instruction elsewhere and that she was interested in learning tae kwon do. And then she matter-of- factly delivered the whopper, the part where the instructors ought to know that their pupil-to-be had no arms.

Sheila, you see, sometimes forgets to tell people about her arms, or lack thereof.

Details, details.

Not only did Sheila show for that first appointment, but she’s been attending lessons two or three times a week ever since.

The way LaRosa tells it Sheila walked in, stuck out her shoulder and shook hands with the woman who would become not only one of her instructors, but one of her closest friends. Sheila has learned a lot. She’s taught even more.

All of Sheila’s time and effort might be rewarded on June 12, when the woman born with no arms and no kneecaps just might walk out with a black belt around her waist.

Giving All

And to think so many of today’s professional athletes, paid millions and adored by even more, can’t give it their all every night.

“I’ve seen lots of people come through the school,” the 32-year-old Radziewicz said over the telephone the other day. “Some stay, some go.”

Stick-to-ness has always been a strong point for Radziewicz, whose right knee would collapse without warning when she was a kid. Never knew when. Only thing she remembers is the pain and subsequent tears.

There were corrective surgeries. At least 10. Imagine a five-year-old waking up in a body cast and having to relearn how to walk.

The fear she felt as a child was exceeded only by the fun.

Don’t use the words disabled or handicapped around this woman.

There’s nothing Sheila can’t do. Or so she thinks. Just ask Bruce McCorry, a member of the Martial Arts Hall of Fame whose training center motto is Strong Mind, Strong Body.

Mind first isn’t happenstance.

“She, according to me, has limitations,” McCorry says. “According to herself, she has no limitations.”

Playing With Fire

Sheila was an inquisitive kid, which is why she tried roller skating, ice skating, horseback riding and skiing. Played soccer in junior high. Was a member of the debate and speech team at Suffolk University in Boston. Most recently she’s taken up the sort of fire-twirling that you’d see at a luau.

“Most dangerous thing I do these days,” says the woman who sometimes spars with nunchucks in her mouth.

Sheila lives alone. She has been known to hop onto the kitchen counter and wash the dishes with her feet, which can also tie shoelaces, fold clothes and, if necessary, pen a letter.

“I don’t identify myself with having a disability,” Sheila says. “But there are times in life when I’m reminded of it.”

Other Reminders

Like the time she bought a new car, a Toyota Camry, and it took six months to outfit for a person with no arms. Once again, though, Sheila looked on the bright side: no gas pedal problems.

Sheila was forced to depend on others for rides to work and to the grocery store. Of course, Sheila tried to manage herself before asking for assistance, which serves as a reminder of the limitations she prefers to ignore. There are other reminders.

Like the hooks on the backs of doors inside public restrooms. They’re a nightmare for Sheila, who can’t reach that high. Her purse and jacket wind up on the floor.

“On a rainy day that’s pretty gross,” she says.

Funny, but the woman who hates asking for help spends her time helping others as a domestic-violence counselor. She’s always wanted to help people. Like her trainer, Sandra, who about 18 months ago was diagnosed with a rare muscle disease that required high doses of steroids.

The trainer, a black belt, says she couldn’t have done it without the student.

We hear so much about athletes as inspiration. So I wondered which athletes Sheila admired and why. Her answer surprised. Not LeBron James. Not Sidney Crosby. Not even martial artist and actor Chuck Norris, who has starred in films alongside Bruce Lee.

“I’m not huge into sports,” she said. “Never really followed athletes.”

It’s just as well. We’d all be better off if athletes followed her.
Bloomberg Business Week, May 12, 2010