Paralympian turned pediatrician lives life without limits [VIDEO]

When Diane Straub swims, the first thing you notice is how fast she moves.

She slices through the water, sending out sprays of glistening sparks.

The next thing you see is that the muscled guy in the next lane is falling behind.

She belongs here, in the pool.

Not until you’ve realized all these things do you remember that most of her right leg is gone.

USF Health pediatrician Dr. Diane Straub swims regularly at the South Tampa YMCA.

Today, Dr. Diane Straub is a top pediatrician at USF Health. She’s chief of the Division of Adolescent Medicine and associate director of that residency training program. She also is co-principal investigator of several research grants, including the USF site of the Adolescent Trials Network, a multi-center NIH network focused on teen HIV and AIDS.

But 20 years ago, Dr. Straub was in Barcelona, earning her first gold medal in the Paralympic Games. Four years later, in Atlanta, she won her second. Both medals came in U.S.team relays that set new world records.

So today, as the 2012 Paralympic Games begins in London, Dr. Straub will watch with a special excitement. She is delighted that this year, legions of others around the world will share her interest, thanks to a highly visible ad campaign and, most of all, the inspiring performance of runner Oscar Pistorius. Pistorius, the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics, reached the semi-finals of his 400 meter race inLondon.

“I think Oscar was vindication for all the athletes,” she said. “To say we are real athletes. We are real, world-class athletes.”

It’s one of the reasons Dr. Straub likes the BP USA ad campaign, which features U.S. Paralympic athletes alongside Olympians.

“It really showcases different athletes – not necessarily better athletes, just differently abled athletes,” she said.

Dr. Straub can’t put her prosthesis back on when her leg is wet, so she brings crutches with her.

Dr. Straub hopes people also will pay attention to the less visible side of the Paralympics: the way they highlight the hurdles overcome by athletes with the most severe disabilities. For her, the most inspiring moment of the Paralympics was in 1992, in Barcelona, when she watched swimmer Grover Evans, a quadriplegic, swim 50 yards – one length of the pool – in spite of his physical challenges.

“For him to swim 50 yards would be the equivalent of me doing a 4-mile swim,” Dr. Straub said. “For him to swim 50 yards was one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen. What he’s overcome is incredible.”

Evans, now a prominent Arkansas politician and advocate, is the embodiment of the poster that hangs on her office wall. All the swimmers at the 1996 Paralympics signed it – a surprise for her from her now-husband, then-boyfriend. It features the 1996 motto: “Triumph of the Human Spirit.”

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Despite a busy career, Dr. Straub comes off as low-key and relaxed. People may read that motto and think of her, but she doesn’t realize it.

“Diane is an inspiration to her adolescent patients; she brings a warmth and boundless energy to her patient care,” said Dr. Patricia Emmanuel, chair of the USF Health Department of Pediatrics. “She also works tirelessly to advance the practice of adolescent medicine and assure that each patient is treated with respect and autonomy.   She is such an asset to USF Pediatrics.”

Dr. Straub often swims with a local team to stay motivated.

But once, Dr. Straub was just another kid who dreamed of being a doctor one day.

In 1988, Diane Straub was a student at Ohio State Universityand a member of the crew team. She grew up on a lake. Water was always a part of her life, and she remembers always being a swimmer.

After the traffic accident that took her leg, crew was no longer an option. Balance is such an intrinsic part of the sport that competing as an amputee just didn’t work.

But it took a long time for her to accept that. Ten days after her accident, her father carried her out to the lake, the stump of her leg wrapped in a garbage bag to keep water off the still-open wound. It got wet anyway.

She persevered. Diane Straub began to swim when she returned to Ohio State in the fall – doing laps purely so she would stay in shape for crew. The university had a disabled swim team, but she hesitated to join.

“They were very welcoming to me and I didn’t want to be part of it, because I couldn’t picture myself as being disabled,” she said. “I could only picture myself as an able-bodied athlete.”

It took a push from other swimmers to get her interested in serious swimming.

“I didn’t consider it until people on the team said, ‘You’re really fast. Why don’t you swim in the Paralympics?’ ”

She had never heard of them.

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Dr. Straub had to win regional, then national competitions to reach the Paralympics. Still struggling to accept her changed status, she didn’t realize the magnitude of her accomplishments.

“It wasn’t until I got to Barcelona,” she said, “that I really understood what an honor it was to be there.”

In Barcelona, athletes were classified into competitive categories based on how much their disability would affect their sport.

So Dr. Straub swam against other athletes with a similar level of disability. Her category included others with amputations above the knee; those missing an arm below the elbow; those with mild cerebral palsy; or other disabilities. In the breast stroke, she swam in a different disability category, because the stroke’s kicking style makes missing a leg is a bigger disadvantage.

The tie-dye cover decorating her prosthesis used to be her husband’s T-shirt.

While the categories are necessary for the logistics of the event, Dr. Straub believes they can also inject a certain level of arbitrariness that can seem unfair. The same person could be classified in different ways at different events, changing their ability to medal. To her, that increases the need to focus on the meaning of the journey, rather than on winning a medal.

Her views didn’t keep her from doing that though; she won her first gold medal in Barcelona, as part of the 4×100 freestyle relay team.

Being in the company of so many other disabled athletes made Dr. Straub feel more comfortable with herself. She arrived in Barcelona wearing a prosthesis with a cosmetic cover. It was designed to look as much like her real leg as possible. It was also, she says now, an inconvenience. It got dirty. It had to be cleaned all the time. It was a pain.

Sometime in Barcelona, another athlete asked her: why are you wearing that? Why does it have to look like a real leg?

She hasn’t worn a cosmetic cover since.

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The controversy over Oscar Pistorius’ appearance in the Olympics doesn’t entirely surprise Dr. Straub. After all, she has friends who sometimes seem to forget that she’s wearing a prosthesis – until they reach a flight of stairs and she lags behind.

So she jokes about the claims that Pistorius’ artificial legs might actually allow him to run faster, to create some kind of unfair advantage over athletes in full possession of both legs.

“I have to say, I’m not going to jump over any buildings in a single bound,” she said. “Yes, prosthetics make things easier, but it’s nowhere near an advantage. I think the gap (as technology improves) will continue to close – but I don’t think we’re anywhere close.”

That’s not even considering the issues that people with amputations often face with blisters and skin breakdowns. Running at Pistorius’ level has to make those problems even worse, Dr. Straub said.

“Limbs are not meant to take that kind of abuse,” she said. “He made it look easy – and it’s not.”

Ultimately, Dr. Straub said, even this controversy can help change people’s views of those with disabilities.

“The mind is like a rubber band,” she said. “Once it’s been stretched, it never quite goes back.”

A few years after winning her first gold medal, Dr. Straub spent a year at Harvard, working on her MPH. She went to swim one day in a pool with lanes marked by speed: “slow, medium, fast, intensive, disabled.” She hopped in the “intensive” lane and politely waited for the other swimmer to finish his lap before she started, so that he didn’t have to move over mid-lap. But this swimmer didn’t appreciate her gesture.

Excuse me, he told her. He spoke very slowly, as if she might have trouble understanding. This is the intensive lane. The disabled lane is over there.

Instead of arguing, she moved over to the disabled lane and began her swim - once again, proving herself in the pool. Dr. Straub had finished just one lap when the other swimmer in her new lane stopped her.

Excuse me, she told Dr. Straub. This is the disabled lane. The intensive lane is over there.

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The following year, Dr. Straub was chosen to carry the Paralympics torch and hand it to President Bill Clinton on the White House lawn. The 1996 Paralympic flame was lit not from the Olympic flame, but from the eternal flame that burns in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., at Atlanta’s King Center. Dr. Straub likes the symbolism.

“It’s about freedom, and overcoming obstacles, and empowerment,” she said.

Dr. Straub went on to win her second gold medal in the Atlanta games, this time swimming the breast stroke lap for the 4×100 relay medley.

***

Today, Dr. Straub is swimming in the sunny lap pool at the South Tampa YMCA. She arrives there walking on her latest prosthesis, boldly decorated with an eye-popping tie-dye design. Despite the many demands on her time – in addition to her patients, research and students, she and her husband have two children, a girl, 11, and a boy, 7 – she continues to swim.

The flipper helps her swim faster, but she couldn’t use one in competition.

She’s parked in a handicapped space here, something that she felt guilty about for years, as if she should leave the spaces for people with more severe disabilities. She’s had to remind herself that close parking allows her more time on her feet with her patients.

She still remembers swimming years ago with Rudy Garcia-Tolson. Back then, he was at the beginning of his swimming career. Now Garcia-Tolson is a gold medalist featured in the BP ads. London will mark his third Paralympics.

Dr. Straub hopes people will be inspired by such lifelong commitment.

“It’s so encouraging for people to see that,” she says. “I have disabled kids in my clinic, and I want them to have the same dreams and aspirations as everybody else.”

- Photos by Eric Younghans, video by Eric Younghans and Danielle Barta, USF Health Communications


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